1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bestuzhev-Ryumin, Alexius Petrovich, Count

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BESTUZHEV-RYUMIN, ALEXIUS PETROVICH, Count (1693–1768), grand chancellor of Russia, the second son of Count Peter Bestuzhev, the early favourite of the empress Anne, was born at Moscow on the 1st of June 1693. Educated abroad, with his elder brother Mikhail, at Copenhagen and Berlin, he especially distinguished himself in languages and the applied sciences. Peter the Great, in 1712, attached him to Prince Kurakin at the Utrecht Congress that he might learn diplomacy, and for the same reason permitted him in 1713 to enter the service of the elector of Hanover. George I. took him to London in 1714, and sent him to St Petersburg as his accredited minister with a notification of his accession. Bestuzhev then returned to England, where he remained four years. It was the necessary apprenticeship to his brilliant diplomatic career. His passion for intrigue is curiously illustrated by his letter to the tsarevich Alexius at Vienna, assuring his “future sovereign” of his devotion, and representing his sojourn in England as a deliberate seclusion of a zealous but powerless well-wisher. This extraordinary indiscretion might well have cost him his life, but the tsarevich fortunately destroyed the letter.[1] On his return to Russia he served for two years without any salary as chief gentleman of the Bedchamber at the court of Anne of Courland, and in 1721 succeeded Vasily Dolgoruki as Russian minister at Copenhagen. Copenhagen was then a whirlpool of diplomatic intrigue, for George I. was endeavouring to arm the northern powers against Peter the Great, and this it was Bestuzhev’s mission to counteract. On the occasion of the peace of Nystad, which terminated the 21 years war between Russia and Sweden, Bestuzhev designed and struck a commemorative medal with a panegyrical Latin inscription, which so delighted Peter (then at Derbent) that he sent a letter of thanks written with his own hand and his portrait set in brilliants. It was at this time too that the many-sided Alexius invented his famous “drops,” or tinctura toniconervina Bestuscheffi, the recipe of which was stolen by the French brigadier Lamotte, who made his fortune by introducing it at the French court, where it was known as Élixir d’Or.

The sudden death of Peter the Great seriously injured Bestuzhev’s prospects. For more than ten years he remained at Copenhagen, looking vainly towards Russia as a sort of promised land from which he was excluded by enemies or rivals. He rendered some important services, however, to the empress Anne, for which he was decorated and made a privy councillor. He also won the favour of Biren, and on the tragic fall of Artemy Voluinsky in 1739 was summoned home to take his place in the council. He assisted Biren to obtain the regency in the last days of the empress Anne, but when his patron fell three weeks later, his own position became extremely precarious. His chance came when the empress Elizabeth, immediately after her accession, summoned him back to court, and appointed him vice-chancellor. For the next twenty years, during a period of exceptional difficulty, he practically controlled the foreign policy of Russia. Bestuzhev rightly recognized that, at this time, France was the natural enemy of Russia. The interests of the two states in Turkey, Poland and Sweden were diametrically opposed, and Russia could never hope to be safe from the intrigues of France in these three borderlands. All the enemies of France were thus necessarily the friends of Russia, and her friends Russia’s enemies. Consequently Great Britain, and still more Austria, were Russia’s natural allies, while the aggressive and energetic king of Prussia was a danger to be guarded against. It was, therefore, the policy of Bestuzhev to bring about a quadruple alliance between Russia, Austria, Great Britain and Saxony, to counterpoise the Franco-Prussian league. But he was on dangerous ground. The empress herself was averse from an alliance with Great Britain and Austria, whose representatives had striven to prevent her accession; and many of her personal friends, in the pay of France and Prussia, took part in innumerable conspiracies to overthrow Bestuzhev. Nevertheless, step by step, Bestuzhev, aided by his elder brother Mikhail, carried out his policy. On the 11th of December 1742, a defensive alliance was concluded between Great Britain and Russia. Bestuzhev had previously rejected with scorn the proposals of the French government to mediate between Russia and Sweden on the basis of a territorial surrender on the part of the former; and he conducted the war so vigorously that by the end of 1742 Sweden lay at the mercy of the empress. At the peace congress of Åbo (January-August 1743) he insisted that the whole of Finland should be ceded to Russia, by way of completing the testament of Peter the Great. But the French party contrived to get better terms for Sweden, by artfully appealing to the empress’s fondness for the house of Holstein. The Swedes, at the desire of Elizabeth, accepted Adolphus Frederick, duke of Holstein, as their future king, and, in return, received back Finland, with the exception of a small strip of land up to the river Kymmene. Nor could Bestuzhev prevent the signing of a Russo-Prussian defensive alliance (March 1743); but he deprived it of all political significance by excluding from it the proposed guarantee of Frederick’s Silesian conquests. Moreover, through Bestuzhev’s efforts, the credit of the Prussian king (whom he rightly regarded as more dangerous than France) at the Russian court fell steadily, and the vice-chancellor prepared the way for an alliance with Austria by acceding to the treaty of Breslau (1st of November 1743). A bogus conspiracy, however, got up by the Holstein faction, aided by France and Prussia, who persuaded Elizabeth that the Austrian ambassador was intriguing to replace Ivan VI. on the throne, alienated the empress from Austria for a time; and Bestuzhev’s ruin was regarded as certain when, in 1743, the French agent, the marquis de La Chétardie, arrived to reinforce his other enemies. But he found a friend in need in M. L. Vorontsov, the empress’s confidant, who shared his political views. Still his position was most delicate, especially when the betrothal between the grand-duke Peter and Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst (afterwards Catharine II.) was carried through against his will, and Elizabeth of Holstein, the mother of the bride, arrived in the Prussian interests to spy upon him. Frederick II., conscious of the instability of his French ally, was now eager to contract an offensive alliance with Russia; and the first step to its realization was the overthrow of Bestuzhev, “upon whom,” he wrote to his minister Axel von Mardefeld, “the fate of Prussia and my own house depends.” But Bestuzhev succeeded, at last, in convincing the empress that Chétardie was an impudent intriguer, and on the 6th of June 1744, that diplomatist was ordered to quit Russia within twenty-four hours. Five weeks later Bestuzhev was made grand chancellor (July 15th). Before the end of the year Elizabeth of Holstein was also expelled from Russia, and Bestuzhev was supreme.

The attention of European diplomacy at this time was concentrated upon the king of Prussia, whose insatiable acquisitiveness disturbed all his neighbours. Bestuzhev’s offer, communicated to the British government at the end of 1745, to attack Prussia if Great Britain would guarantee subsidies to the amount of some £6,000,000, was rejected as useless now that Austria and Prussia were coming to terms. Then he turned to Austria, and on the 22nd of May 1746, an offensive and defensive alliance was concluded between the two powers manifestly directed against Prussia. In 1747, alliances were also concluded with Denmark and the Porte. At the same time Bestuzhev resisted any rapprochement with France, and severely rebuked the court of Saxony for its intrigues with that of Versailles. About this time he was hampered by the persistent opposition of the vice-chancellor Mikhail Vorontsov, formerly his friend, now his jealous rival, who was secretly supported by Frederick the Great. In 1748, however, he got rid of him by proving to the empress that Vorontsov was in the pay of Prussia. The hour of Bestuzhev’s triumph coincided with the peace congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, which altered the whole situation of European politics and introduced fresh combinations, the breaking away of Prussia from France and a rapprochement between England and Prussia, with the inevitable corollary of an alliance between France and the enemies of Prussia. Bestuzhev’s violent political prejudices at first prevented him from properly recognizing this change. Passion had always been too large an ingredient in his diplomacy. His Anglomania also misled him. His enemies, headed by his elder brother Mikhail and the vice-chancellor Vorontsov, powerless while his diplomacy was faultless, quickly took advantage of his mistakes. When, on the 16th of January 1756, the Anglo-Prussian, and on the 2nd of May the Franco-Austrian alliances were concluded, Vorontsov advocated the accession of Russia to the latter league, whereas Bestuzhev insisted on a subsidy treaty with Great Britain. But his influence was now on the wane. The totally unexpected Anglo-Prussian alliance had justified the arguments of his enemies that England was impossible, while his hatred of France prevented him from adopting the only alternative of an alliance with her. To prevent underground intrigues, Bestuzhev now proposed the erection of a council of ministers, to settle all important affairs, and at its first session (14th–30th of March) an alliance with Austria, France and Poland against Frederick II. was proposed, though Bestuzhev opposed any composition with France. He endeavoured to support his failing credit by a secret alliance with the grand-duchess Catherine, whom he proposed to raise to the throne instead of her Holstein husband, Peter, from whom Bestuzhev expected nothing good either for himself or for Russia. The negotiations were conducted through the Pole Stanislaus Poniatowski. The accession of Russia to the anti-Prussian coalition (1756) was made over his head, and the cowardice and incapacity of Bestuzhev’s friend, the Russian commander-in-chief, Stephen Apraksin, after the battle of Gross-Jagersdorf (1757), was made the pretext for overthrowing the chancellor. His unwillingness to agree to the coalition was magnified into a determination to defeat it, though it is quite obvious that he could only gain by the humiliation of Frederick, and nothing was ever proved against him. Nevertheless he was deprived of the chancellorship and banished to his estate at Goretovo (April 1759), where he remained till the accession of Catharine II., who recalled him to court and created him a field marshal. But he took no leading part in affairs and died on the 21st of April 1768, the last of his race.

See The Sbornik of the Russian Historical Society, vols. 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, 22, 26, 66, 79, 80, 81, 85-86, 91-92, 96, 99, 100, 103 (St Petersburg, 1870, &c.); Politische Correspondenz Friedrichs des Grossen, vols. 1-21 (Berlin, 1879–1904.); R. Nisbet Bain, The Daughter of Peter the Great (London, 1899).  (R. N. B.) 

  1. A copy of the letter was taken by way of precaution, beforehand, by the Austrian ministers, and this copy is still in the Vienna archives.