Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Royal Belgium and Imperial Russia

Friendships between Belgium and the Russian Empire began in 1697 and 1698 when the mighty Russian Emperor Tsar Peter the Great toured Europe and visited Belgium. He had hoped for Western Europe to join in a war against the Turks but this could not be done and he took the opportunity to study how things were done in the west and learn all about the latest methods of farming, ship building, fortress design, artistic trends and government organization. While in Belgium he visited Brussels (a major European power center even then) as well as Aix-la-Chapelle and Spa where a monument still stands in his honor.

In 1795 S.A. Prince Leopold of Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha was made colonel of the Izmaylovsky Guards Regiment of the Imperial Russian Army. This was mostly an honorific position, but as he grew older he displayed considerable military talent and was later promoted to general-major of the Russian Army. The French Emperor Napoleon was so impressed with Prince Leopold that he offered him a position on his staff but Leopold remained loyal to the Russian army and refused. At the battle of Kulm he led a Russian heavy cavalry division against the French and was later recognized with promotion to lieutenant-general in 1815 at the age of only 25.

This prince later became the first King of the Belgians and in 1853 he welcomed the first Imperial Russian ambassador to his court in Brussels, one Mikhail Irineyevich Khreptovich, when formal diplomatic relations were first established between the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Belgium. There did come to be distant family ties between the Belgian royal house and the Romanovs of Russia and there was trade between the countries but the neutral status of Belgium prevented any formal alliance. However, when the Great War started and German troops invaded Russia the Belgians and Russians found themselves on the same side of the conflict. Although uninvolved in the diplomatic struggle between the great powers that led up to the war, Belgium had not objected to Russia gaining access to the Mediterranean or even taking the city of Constantinople.
When Belgian King Albert Ier heard about the brutal massacre of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, his ally, by the Soviet Communists he was both horrified and outraged as both a devoted family man fond of the Romanovs and as an allied sovereign. Even though the British had entered the war on behalf of Belgium and in some ways were the closest allies of Belgium, King Albert I did not hesitate to voice his extreme displeasure at the British government, openly, for not doing absolutely everything in their power to save the lives of the Russian Imperial Family. When the war was over and Belgium restored the country welcomed in large numbers of White Russian exiles who established one of their largest expatriate communities in the country. These gallant Russian warriors were later very helpful in the combat against rising communist presence in Belgium as they knew first hand how dangerous these people were.
Naturally, relations were cool throughout this later period with Russia under Soviet rule and Belgium a key member of the NATO alliance. However, friendly relations were restored once again after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today Belgium and Russia have a good diplomatic relationship and are important trading partners to each other. It would still be much nicer though for the King of the Belgians to have a Tsar of all Russias to deal with instead of a president. Hopefully that can still change in the future.


  1. Good for Albert I! This was a very interesting post!

  2. PS: I have linked to this on my other blog, Sword and Sea.

  3. Yes I thought. Albert I must have often felt very frustrated. I'm sure he would have gone to the rescue if it were possible but his own country was overrun. Many times I am sure he must have been frustrated at the words and actions of Britain and France (I think it was Marshal Joffre who called the Belgian army "an inferior lot") but he could do very little, he could hardly hope for success on his own, so he had to make the best of it. That he spoke up only to shame the British in his situation must have taken great moral courage. In a practical way it was possibly not "smart" to say that but his principles forced him. And he was right of course.