Alexander I

Alexander I, emperor of Russia, son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna, husband of Princess Luise Marie Auguste of Baden, brother of Nicholas I, hero of the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon, painted by George Dawe for the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace 1824
Born: 1777, St Petersburg
Died: 1825, Taganrog

Alexander I was the first child and eldest son of Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna. He was born in St Petersburg on 12 December 1777. Immediately after his birth, he was removed from his parents by Catherine the Great, who decided to bring the boy up herself. She later intended to appoint Alexander as her heir, instead of his father Paul.

Catherine II personally supervised the education of Alexander and his younger brother Konstantin, laying out her ideas in a special document entitled Instructions for the Education of my Grandsons. The boys were tutored by Frédéric César de la Harpe, a Swiss liberal who was later one of the directors of the Helvetic Republic. Alexander later claimed that he owed La Harpe everything, except his birth.

Alexander I was a contradictory figure. Reticent, suspicious and conceited, he was considered affected and insincere. But he was also known for his kindness and sentimentality. He never let anyone, liberals or conservatives, dominate him. He avoided open conflict, yet always seemed to get his way, which made him a skilful diplomat and politician. Napoleon later confessed that he had been outwitted by the tsar.

Outwardly, the emperor was handsome and charming. In 1807, Napoleon wrote home to Josephine: “If Alexander were a woman, I think I should fall passionately in love with him.” The tsar had a beautiful wife to match. On 28 September 1793, he married Princess Luise Marie Auguste of Baden, who had converted to Orthodoxy as Elizabeth Alexeyevna.

Elizabeth was a niece of the first wife of Paul I. She gave birth to two daughters, who both died in infancy. Alexander soon lost interest in his wife and took a string of mistresses. The longest affair was with Princess Maria Naryshkina, who gave birth to several of his children.

When Alexander heard of the plot against his father, he did not take any precautionary measures. Ascending the throne in 1801, he merely banished the ringleaders from St Petersburg. The new emperor was enthusiastically welcomed by the rest of the country. Young, intelligent and well-educated, he brought hopes of a more liberal and humane regime.

Alexander immediately demonstrated his liberal credentials by appointing a Private Committee to seek ways to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy. The committee was composed of such personal friends and associates of his youth as Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Count Pavel Stroganov, Prince Victor Kochubey and Count Nikolai Novosiltsev.

The Private Committee issued manifestos restoring the charters of Catherine II to the nobility and towns, granting pardons to those who had suffered under the previous tsar and allowing the purchase and sale of land by all free individuals. New universities were opened in Kharkiv, Kazan, Derpt and Vilna. Existing educational establishments were awarded new freedoms.

One of the most famous institutions founded by Alexander I was the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum in 1810. Many famous Russians were educated there, including Alexander Pushkin. When he was a lyceum student in the 1810s, the young poet paid tribute to Alexander’s role in the war against Napoleon and the liberal transformations at the start of his reign.

Alexander’s reforms soon ran into the resistance of members of the royal family, the court and the nobility. Even La Harpe advised him not to rush into things. Finally, the emperor himself began to fear that any weakening of autocratic power would only help to strengthen other groups, such as the bureaucracy.

By this time, foreign policy was taking up most of Alexander’s time and energy. Russia expanded south into the Caucasus, incorporating Georgia into the empire in 1801. This sparked off the Caucasian War with the hill tribes of the North Caucasus, whose lands lay on the road to Tiflis.

Russia was meanwhile being slowly drawn into the Napoleonic Wars. Although relations with France were initially cordial, the tsar’s position began to change around 1802. He was dismayed at Napoleon’s successes, yet saw no strategic interest in helping Austria and her allies in their struggle against the Corsican upstart.

Russia finally joined the anti-Napoleonic coalition in April 1805, but was defeated by the French army at the Battle of Friedland on 14 June 1807. Alexander asked for a truce and signed the Treaty of Tilsit on 7 July. On a raft in the middle of the River Neman, the tsar embraced the person whom he had recently, in his decrees, called “the enemy of the human race.”

Russia signed an alliance with France and joined the Continental System against Napoleon’s enemy, Great Britain. Everyone realised that the Treaty of Tilsit was a fragile peace and that a new war was inevitable. The alliance with France could never last, while Napoleon’s appetite was growing. He now dreamt of world domination.

Alexander was shaken by the defeat of the Russian army and exasperated at his enforced friendship with Napoleon. He changed greatly over those years. As his former illusions and romanticism faded, the burden of governing a large empire began to weigh heavily on his shoulders.

Despite his doubts and hesitations, Alexander pressed on with his domestic reforms. In 1808, Mikhail Speransky drew up a project for a legislative parliament (duma) with a state council as the main executive body. But the emperor could not bring himself to sign this radical document and, without explanation, dismissed Speransky from office in March 1812.

On 31 December 1810, Russia withdrew from the Continental System and reopened trade with Great Britain. Napoleon moved a great army of 600,000 men into Poland, ready to force a decisive battle with the Russians. When the tsar did not respond, Napoleon invaded Russia on 24 June 1812.

The French attack spurred Alexander into action. He declared that he would not lay down arms until every last enemy soldier had been expelled from Russian soil. The tsar vowed never to sign peace, not even if he had to retreat to the very end of the Russian Empire: “He or I, I or He: we cannot reign together!”

Commanded by Prince Michael Andreas Barclay de Tolly, the Russian army drew the invaders deep into the interior, employing scorched-earth tactics. This caused widespread anger and frustration among the population. In a rare concession to public opinion, Alexander appointed his enemy, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, as commander-in-chief of the Russian forces.

On 7 September 1812, Mikhail Kutuzov engaged Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino. Both sides suffered heavy losses, with a third of the French and half of the Russian army killed or wounded. After a conference at the village of Fili on 13 September, Kutuzov fell back on the strategy of his predecessor and decided to retreat.

This opened up the road to Moscow, which was captured by the French army on 14 September. But it was a Pyrrhic victory, as the city was abandoned by its residents and caught fire. Alexander regarded the fire of Moscow as a divine punishment for his sins and his role in his father’s death.

Despite losing Moscow, Alexander refused to surrender. A month later, the French invaders were forced to leave the ruined city and retreat back towards Smolensk, harried all the time by mounted Cossacks. On 14 December 1812, the Grande Armée was finally thrown out of Russia.

Intoxicated by victory and against the advice of Kutuzov, Alexander decided to pursue Napoleon through Europe and invade France. The emperor often rode into the field of battle himself. At the Battle of Lützen on 2 May 1813, when advised to retreat to a safe distance after coming under heavy fire, he replied: “My bullet is not here.”

The Russian army crossed the French border in spring 1814 and entered Paris on 31 March 1814. Alexander rode on a white horse once presented to him by Napoleon. The French emperor was forced to abdicate on 6 April and exiled to the isle of Elba off the coast of Italy.

On 10 April 1814, Alexander ordered an Orthodox Easter mass to be celebrated in the place where King Louis XVI had been guillotined in 1793. Two weeks later, the State Council, Holy Synod and Cabinet of Ministers awarded the emperor the title of “Alexander the Blessed.”

Although the French had plundered and pillaged Russia, Paris escaped the same fate. The tsar was gracious towards the ex-empress Josephine and her children. At the Château de Malmaison, he acquired the collection of paintings belonging to Napoleon’s first wife for the Imperial Hermitage.

The victorious powers met to redraw the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna. In 1815, Alexander signed the Holy Alliance with Austria and Prussia as a bastion against revolution. The tsar now dreamt of heading a different world order, where there would be no more talk of democracy or constitutional reforms.

The heady events of 1812 and lingering pangs of conscience over his father’s murder led Alexander to immerse in mysticism. Pseudo-religious and mystical cults flourished throughout the country. After the war with revolutionary France, the emperor grew increasingly conservative. Russia entered another period of stagnation.

Alexander’s leading statesman was now the loyal but reactionary Count Alexei Arakcheyev. Supported by the tsar, he created a network of military settlements, which combined the dual hardships of army service and agricultural labour. In Russia, Arakcheyev’s name became a byword for a military state and reactionary repression.

In 1818, Alexander was alarmed by rumours and reports of a revolutionary conspiracy among the imperial guards. The authorities were particularly suspicious of masonic lodges, with their surreptitious rituals and mystical symbols. In 1822, the emperor signed a decree banning all secret societies, including masonic lodges.

The tsar’s growing conservatism forced Alexander Pushkin, who had once lauded what he called the “wonderful first days of Alexander,” into the arms of the opposition. When notes of criticism crept into his writings, the poet was banished from St Petersburg. After that, Pushkin was generally scathing about the emperor, whom he called “weak and sly.”

The final years of Alexander’s life were sad and unhappy. Disillusioned with power and fame, he felt that he had lived his life in vain. This sense of disenchantment was particularly evident during the great flood of St Petersburg on 7 November 1824. From the windows of the Winter Palace, the tsar watched as the wild elements raged out of control, killing hundreds of people.

The absolute ruler of a great empire, Alexander was unable to do anything to save his subjects, until the murderous winds died down at the will of God. The following day, the emperor toured the city, seeing for himself the traces of destruction. He heard someone in the crowd saying: “God is punishing us for our sins.” “No,” Alexander replied, “He is punishing us for my sins.”

What had happened to the kind and compassionate man who had offered so much hope for liberal reforms at the start of his reign? In the intervening years, Alexander had lost many of his illusions regarding both himself and Russia. There was no more talk of the transformations that had previously been his whole raison d’être. Changes, it seemed, were not possible without reducing the power of the throne. The disappointed tsar realised that the autocracy and freedom were two incompatible things.

There was another important reason why Alexander did not want to attempt any more reforms – or even to rule Russia. He was disappointed in the executive, the people and the country as a whole. The emperor wrote: “I like constitutional institutions and think that any orderly person must like them. But can they be introduced equally for all nations? Are all nations ready to accept them to an equal degree? I do not know...”

Alexander was convinced that there was no point doing anything worthwhile in Russia, because the people were unworthy. He readily granted a constitution to Poland and Finland, because these nations were orderly, competent and virtuous. But, for the tsar, Russia itself was a different matter.

Alexander I did not seem comfortable in his own country. Never before, since Peter the Great, had a Russian sovereign spent so much time abroad. Accompanied by a small entourage, he travelled back and forth across Europe in an open carriage. Alexander Pushkin called him the “nomadic despot.”

The emperor possibly sought solace in the ever-changing scenery or the solitude of a traveller on the road, alone under the starry sky. He said that he was weary and wanted to abdicate. Once he had pursued glory and recognition; now he desired anonymity. Hence the persistent rumours that he faked his own death to become a hermit.

By this time, Alexander had left Princess Maria Naryshkina and returned to his wife, who was increasingly suffering from poor health. The couple decided to travel to the south of Russia, setting off from St Petersburg in September 1825. While the tsar was visiting the Crimea in October 1825, he caught a fever and died in the port of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov on 19 November 1825.

The unexpected death of Alexander I and his nocturnal funeral among close friends gave rise to many myths. The most popular legend is that he did not die and someone else was buried in his place. The sovereign allegedly retreated to Siberia, later resurfacing as Fyodor Kuzmich, a wandering pilgrim known for his righteous life who died in a forest near Tomsk in January 1864.

Alexander immediately demonstrated his liberal credentials by appointing a Private Committee, composed of personal friends and associates of his youth, to seek ways to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy. Several of their projects were passed as laws.

Alexander’s reforms soon ran into the resistance of members of the royal family, the court and the nobility. Even La Harpe advised him not to rush into things. Finally, the emperor himself began to fear that any weakening of autocratic power would only help to strengthen other groups, such as the bureaucracy.

This dampened the ardour of the young tsar, who was forced to abandon his reforms during the long struggle against Napoleon. After the war with revolutionary France, he grew increasingly conservative.

Despite his doubts and hesitations, Alexander pressed forward with his reforms until 1812. Mikhail Speransky drew up a project for a legislative parliament with a state council as the main executive body. But the emperor could not bring himself to sign this radical document and, without explanation, dismissed Speransky from office.

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