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Ioannis Capodistrias, guardian angel of independence of the Vaud

Sunday 27 September 2009

All Vaudois know the doctor César Roux, the American president Woodrow Wilson, the baron Pierre de Coubertin, or even Maurice Béjart. By contrast, Ioannis Capodistrias is completely unknown. Nevertheless, like the others, the one-time Russian envoy in Switzerland is one of the sixteen honorary citizens of the city of Lausanne. In fact he was the first to attain this title, in 1816. 

RAPHAËL EBINGER | 19.09.2009 | 00:00

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The first honorary citizen of Lausanne

From Monday [21 Sept 2009] onwards Ioannis Capodistrias will be stirring the memories of the Vaudois and the Lausannois in the aftermath of the inauguration of a bust at Ouchy (see below). This work will have the advantage of shedding light on the role he played at the highest level during the critical historical turning point at the beginning of the 19th century when the Swiss Federation was breaking away from the French Empire, with all the dislocations that involved. Apart from participating in maintenance of the cohesion of the country, this bridge-builder and pacifier born at Corfu in 1776 was also the guardian angel of the canton of Vaud. He succeeded in defending its independence at the demand of Czar Alexander I, who was himself very attached to the canton since his encounter with his preceptor (from Rolle in the Vaud) Frédéric-César de La Harpe.

"You want the Aargau? You’re not going to have it! You want the canton of Vaud? You’re not going to have it! And if it comes to that, we may very well exclude you from the Confederation!" The opposition of Count Ioannis Capodistrias to the Bernese campaign for restoration of the old bailiwick system after the Act of Mediation gained him immense recognition in the canton of Vaud, which offered him naturalization at the same moment as Lausanne was for the first time awarding honorary citizenship. These gestures were immensely moving to their recipient: "The sincere affection and esteem that your nation inspires in me long precede, if I may say so, the formal association that is so agreeable to me to contract today." he wrote on 9th June in a letter of thanks to the Municipality of Lausanne. 

Commissioned by the Czar to see to it that Switzerland should be emancipated from French influence, Ioannis Capodistrias was brought face to face with a conglomerate of petty republics, at odds on the future of the Confederation, some of them desiring a return to the 13-canton regime that had preceded the Revolution, others wishing to defend the gains of the 19-canton confederation sought by the Act of Mediation. A subtle mediator, he rapidly succeeded in imposing himself in this difficult context as a personality indispensable to the political world of Switzerland. His influence was such that all the cantonal constitutions then under elaboration were subordinated to it. He also attentively supervised the drawing-up of the first federal Constitution adopted on the 7th August 1815, with the new federal pact guaranteeing the independence of the state of Vaud. 

What remained was to consolidate the country’s independence at the international level. He succeeded in doing this between 1814 and 1815 at the Congress of Vienna, during which the victors over Napoleon redrew Europe’s frontiers. Working from inside the Russian delegation, he obtained recognition for our country and for Swiss neutrality. “What he achieved was a masterpiece of disinterested persuasion” was the contemporary testimony of Pictet de Richemond, representative of Geneva at the Congress. “Among most ministers of state, the heart is sterile terrain, and it is very rare for men endowed with such genius as he to accord it much place in their calculations.”

Having performed these good offices in Switzerland, Ioannis Capodistrias returned to Russia, where he was head of foreign affairs. At that time he was even the minister most favoured by the Czar, but that did not save him from being put on leave in 1822 when he began to exert himself to obtain independence for Greece. When Greek independence was won he was even made the country’s first president in 1827. He then undertook a reform of education, taking the ideas of Rousseau as his point of departure. It is also due to him that potato cultivation was introduced to Greece. .

He repelled the danger from Turkey, investing all his fortune in this even to the precious stones from the decorations he had been awarded. But his actions earned him the hatred of the heads of numerous local factions. The sons of one of them put an end to his reign in the most tragic manner. On 9th October 1831 at 6 a.m., on the threshold of the church of Saint Spyridon in Nafplion, he was brought down by two bullets in the forehead and a dagger in the stomach. One of the murderers managed to take flight but the other was lynched by the mob.
“The assassination of Capodistrias is a dark page in our history,” says Dimitris Kiritsis, president of the Estia Hellenic Association of Lausanne. But in Greece he is one of our country’s most celebrated figures. His face is to be seen on 20 cent European coins. The University of Athens, the airport of Corfu, and many other institutions, bear his name.

A bust inaugurated at Ouchy Lausanne will finally have its monument paying homage to its first honorary citizen. On Monday, in the evening, a bronze bust with the signature of the Russian sculptor Vladimir Surovtsev will in fact be unveiled between the Quai Pascal Delamuraz and the Allée des Bacounis at Ouchy. The ceremony is sure to attract a sizeable and distinguished audience to the shores of the lake. The Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs Micheline Calmy-Rey and her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov will be among the participants, as will the mayor of Lausanne Daniel Brélaz and the President of Vaud’s Council of State Pascal Broulis. For this magistrate of Greek origins, freshly returned from Moscow where he led a delegation from Vaud, the event was of particular significance. “For me Ioannis Capodistrias represents European construction in the positive sense,” he says. .
Part of a Russian-Greek-Lausannian initiative, the installation of the sculpture was accelerated to make possible its inauguration during the visit to Switzerland of Russian president Dimitri Medvedev, who was nevertheless unable to participate in the ceremony.