Alexander, Count Benckendorff - Encyclopedia




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"ALEXANDER BENCKENDORFF, COUNT (1849-1917), Russian diplomat, was born in 1849. His family came from Livonia, one of his ancestors having been burgomaster of Riga. His great uncle, who achieved great distinction in the Russian imperial service in the reign of Nicholas I, becoming minister of the police and being raised to the rank of a count, died childless, the title and estates passing to his nephew, Count Alexander's father. The mother of Count Alexander was a princess of Croy.

He was educated in a private school in Paris and passed his baccalaurdat in due course. He entered the diplomatic service in 1869 and began as an attache in Florence, eventually in Rome. He resigned in 1876 and lived nearly 10 years on his estates, in St. Petersburg and abroad. He married in 1879 Countess Sophie Schuvaloff. In 1886 he returned to diplomacy and served as first secretary in Vienna under Prince Lobanoff-Rostovsky and Count Kapnist. In 1897 he was appointed minister in Copenhagen and remained there until 1903.

The Copenhagen post gave him, as well as some other diplomats, an exceptional opportunity of watching the principal moving powers of European politics from a point of vantage, as the matrimonial alliances of the Danish royal family occasionally brought together in a friendly family circle the widow of Alexander III, Nicholas II and the Prince of Wales who was to become King Edward VII. In this way Count Benckendorff received his initiation into the spirit of an Anglo-Russian rapprochement even before it actually resulted in an Entente. When he was promoted in 1903 ambassador to the Court of St. James as a successor to Baron de Staal, the atmosphere seemed anything but favourable to such a rapprochement. The rivalry of the two Powers in the East, cunningly exploited by the Kaiser, was growing more and more acute. When the storm had discharged itself in the Japanese war, reasonable statesmen on both sides, King Edward, Lord Lansdowne, and the Russian Foreign Minister Isvolsky, changed the course both for Great Britain and for Russia, and thus frustrated the plans of the tertius gaudens.

Count Benckendorff had an important share in bringing about this change. At a very critical moment, when the Kaiser had actually mesmerized Nicholas II into the conclusion of a secret and personal convention at Bjdrko, which purported to aim at a defensive agreement, but would have led by necessity to the disruption of the FrancoRussian Alliance and to the vassalage of Russia in a continental league against England, Count Benckendorff was invited to Copenhagen and had an opportunity of serving as a confidential intermediary between Russia and Great Britain.

The Kaiser was exceedingly angry and gave vent to his feelings in a letter to "Nicky:" "Like brigands in a wood he has sent Benckendorff - your Ambassador - to Copenhagen on a clandestine mission to your mother, with the instructions to win her over to influence you for a policy against me. The Foreign Office in London knows about his journey, which is denied at your embassy there." Tsar Nicholas's reply to this letter shows in what esteem Count Benckendorff was held by his sovereign: - "Benckendorff went by my permission as my mother invited him to come as a friend of the Danish family. What sort of conversation went on I certainly do not know. But I can resolutely assure you that nothing can influence me except the interest, safeguard, and honour of my country. Benckendorff is a loyal subject and a real gentleman. I know he would never lend himself to any false tricks, even if they came from the `great mischief-maker himself.'"

The Bjorkti intrigue evaporated without leaving any tangible result, and the historic rapprochement between Great Britain, France and Russia took its course. Benckendorff in London was excellently placed to keep up and to develop this policy. Liberal, courteous, a shrewd observer, loyal and watchful in the cause of Russia, he maintained the best possible relations with Lord Lansdowne and Sir Edward Grey, and became a favourite at Court and in London society. He was peculiarly adapted for the wise and skilful treatment of difficult problems in the spirit of an international set, playing the great game of diplomacy with grace and honour. He had to face the dominant fact of the situation - the aggressive pressure of Germany at a time when Russia was drifting into an internal crisis of the first magnitude and was unable to concentrate the material and moral forces required in the coming conflict. Unpleasant retreats had to be effected twice, before the Kaiser "in shining armour:" the first time after Aehrenthal's annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the second after the blocking of the Serbian advance towards the Adriatic. Benckendorff was one of those who knew how to abide his time, and he did not lose heart.

There were greater trials in store when the World War broke out at last. His younger son fell in one of the first battles on the East Prussian front, and he lived to see the collapse of the corrupt military organization of Russia in the campaign of 1915. Fortunately for him, he did not live to see the debacle of Russian society in 1917. He died Jan. II 1917. (P. VI.)

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