The oldest of Paul’s ten children, Alexander was raised by his doting grandmother Catherine II in her palace at Tsarskoe Selo. “I am besotted with him; the infant would spend his entire life with me if he was allowed to,” wrote Catherine in one of her letters. Coming to power, Alexander declared his intention to follow in the footsteps of his grandmother. The young Emperor undid many of his father’s acts, restoring freedoms and privileges to the nobility, allowing foreign travel and the import of foreign books.
Alexander’s great hour struck when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, leading his Grand Armée of half a million soldiers to threaten Russia’s very survival. Under the command of the military genius, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian army retreated deeper and deeper into its own territory as Napoleon’s supply lines stretched precariously long. The French entered Moscow only to find the city abandoned and, very soon, ablaze. Alexander did not offer to negotiate, and Napoleon’s exhausted army was forced to retrace the route of its invasion, just as an early and severe winter had begun. Less than a tenth of the army survived, placing Russia in the forefront of European politics.