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Alexander von Benckendorff by George Dawe

Count Alexander von Benckendorff, (Russian: граф Александр Христофорович Бенкендорф, Aleksandr Khristoforovich Benkendorf, 4 July [O.S. 23 June] 1781 or 1783 – 5 October [O.S. 23 September] 1844, was a Russian Cavalry General and statesman, Adjutant General of Tsar Alexander I, a commander of partisan (Kossak irregular) units during the War of 1812-13. However, he is most frequently remembered for his later role, under Tsar Nicholas I, as the founding head of the Gendarmes and the Secret Police in Imperial Russia.

Life and career

Alexander von Benckendorff was born to a Baltic German family in Reval (now Tallinn) in today's Estonia). His brother Konstantin von Benkendorff was a general and diplomat, and his sister Dorothea von Lieven a socialite and political force in London and Paris. During Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Benckendorff led the Velizh offensive, taking prisoner three French generals. When Moscow was liberated, he became the commander of its garrison. In the foreign campaigns following, he defeated a French contingent at Tempelberg and was one of the first Russians to enter Berlin. He further distinguished himself at Leipzig and later cleared out the French forces occupying the Netherlands. After British and Prussian forces arrived to succeed him, his unit proceeded to take Louvain and Mechelen, liberating 600 imprisoned Englishmen on the way.

Grave of Alexander von Benkendorff in Keila-Joa, Estonia, 2009

In 1821 he attempted to warn Alexander I against the threat from the Decembrist clandestine organisation, but the Tsar ignored his note. After the 1825 Decembrist Revolt, he sat on the investigation committee and lobbied for the creation of a Corps of Gendarmes and a secret police, the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery. He was the first Chief of Gendarmes and Executive Director of the Third Section from 1826 to 1844. Under his management, the Third Section established, i.a., a strict censorship over literature and theatre performances. His aim for Russian historiography was reflected in his statement that "Russia's past was admirable, its present is more than magnificent and as for its future — it is beyond anything that the boldest mind can imagine."[1] In his rôle as Chief Censor, he became involved in the fate and tragic death of Alexander Pushkin in an unnecessary duel, an involvement that for long made him an unmentionable in Russian historiography. Yet by temperament, he was the very opposite of a proto-Dzerzhinsky or a proto-Beria. He suffered from a bizarre tendency to forget his own name, and periodically had to be reminded of it by consulting his own visiting card.[2] From the mid-1830s, his family seat was the Gothic Revival manor, Schloss Fall (now Keila-Joa) near Tallinn in today's Estonia.[3]

Benckendorff's notes

A recent Russian publication reveals his own view of his early life: Zapiski Benkendorfa: Otechestvennaia voina; 1813 god: Osvobozhdenie Niderlandov (Benkendorff's Notes. The Patriotic War; 1813: The Liberation of the Netherlands): Iaziki slavyanskikh kul'tur, Moscow, 2001. ISBN 5-7859-0228-1. This book reproduces two sections of Benckendorff's private notes that had not seen publication since 1903, very lively on the events of the Napoleonic war, correspondences with his contemporaries, Bagration and others, and associated regimental histories.

According to that book, Benckendorff kept personal notes and diaries throughout his life. One additional source for his notes, in this case from the late 1830s, can be found in volume 91 of the journal Istoricheskii vestnik for 1903.


Further reading

  • Ronald Hingley, The Russian Secret Police: Muscovite, Imperial, and Soviet Political Security Operations (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1970). ISBN 0-671-20886-1
  • R. J. Stove, The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and Their Victims (Encounter Books, San Francisco, 2003). ISBN 1-893554-66-X
  • Judith Lissauer Cromwell, "Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris" (McFarland and Co., 2007) ISBN 0-7864-2651-9

External links

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