Alexander II

Born: 1818, Moscow
Died: 1881, St Petersburg

Alexander II was the first child and eldest son of Nicholas I and Alexandra Fyodorovna. He was born in Moscow on 17 April 1818.

Alexander II was very different in character to his strong-willed and single-minded father. When he was still the heir to the throne, he often said that he would prefer a quiet family life to the burden of power. But he understood his duty and bowed to his fate.

Nicholas I was determined that his son should be brought up by the finest teachers and instructors, even if their views clashed with his own. When he appointed Vasily Zhukovsky as personal tutor to the heir, the poet allegedly told the Russian autocrat that he would raise Alexander not as a regimental commander, more at home in the barracks or on the parade ground, but as a future enlightened monarch.

Zhukovsky kept his word and Alexander II received an excellent education. Besides Russian, the tsarevich also knew French, German, English and Polish. He studied mathematics, physics, geography, history, political economy, statistics and law and developed a taste for art. Long before he succeeded to the throne, he was familiar with the real state of the nation and the mood of the people.

When he was older, Alexander studied at the First Military Academy. The tsarevich led the exact same existence as the other cadets, appearing for roll call, participating in manoeuvres, marching on the parade-ground, hiking in full ammunition, sleeping on straw in the open air, and eating out of the common bowl (the others fought over his spoon afterwards). Carl Merder, a battle officer and the tsarevich’s other tutor, wrote that Alexander commanded a platoon as an officer for the first time on 9 June 1832 and “performed his duties quite well.” On 30 June, he took part in an imperial review, and the emperor “indicated his complete satisfaction.”

Alexander participated in the traditional summer manoeuvres of the guard regiments at Krasnoe Selo near Peterhof. He soon won the reputation of a brave horseman and a cool and composed warrior – as could be seen during the numerous attempts on his life when he became emperor. He demonstrated his bravery when he served in the army during the Caucasian War and helped to repulse an attack by wild tribesmen. He was awarded the Order of St George (fourth class) for his heroism.

Alexander’s childhood ended on 17 April 1834, when he reached the age of sixteen and took the oath as the heir apparent. After this, he spent much time travelling across Russia and abroad.

At the age of nineteen, Alexander embarked on a long journey across Russia, accompanied by Vasily Zhukovsky. He was the first member of the imperial family to visit Siberia, where he met several of the exiled Decembrists and managed to improve their living conditions. The tsarevich spent the following years travelling round Europe, where he had the chance to compare foreign ways to life in Russia.

Alexander visited Queen Victoria in England in 1839, when he was twenty-one and the young queen was twenty. The young couple were distantly related, as Victoria’s grandmother, Queen Charlotte of England, had been an aunt of Alexander’s grandmother, Queen Louise of Prussia.

They first met on 27 May 1839, three days after Victoria’s birthday. The queen describes this first meeting in her diary: “I saw the Grand Duke at 20 minutes to 7; he bowed up to my window … We dined in St George’s Hall, which looked beautiful. The Grand Duke led me in … I really am quite in love with the Grand Duke; he is a dear, delightful young man … I danced with the Grand Duke, and we had such fun and laughter … I never enjoyed myself more. We were all so merry; I got to bed by a half to 3, but could not sleep till 5.”

The following day, the couple met again and Alexander told Victoria that he would never forget the reception he had been given in England. That night, she wrote in her diary: “He said … he would never forget these days here, which I’m sure I shall never also, for I really love this amiable and dear young man, who has such a sweet smile.”

During his month-long visit, Alexander and Victoria reputedly fell in love. They went for horse rides together at Windsor, danced at balls in Buckingham Palace and once, at the theatre, Alexander visited Victoria in her box alone for over half an hour. The tsarevich told his aide-de-camp, Colonel Simon Yurievich, that he was in love with Victoria and convinced that she felt the same way about him. Yurievich spoke with the Queen’s former governess and confidante, who said that Victoria had already told her of her similar feelings for Alexander.

When Tsar Nicholas I heard of the romance, he ordered his son to return to Europe. Alexander was told that a marriage was impossible, as he would have to give up the Russian throne to become a British prince consort. Victoria describes their farewell meeting in her diary: “The Grand Duke took my hand and pressed it warmly; he looked pale and his voice faltered, as he said ‘I do not have the words to describe how I feel for you’ and he mentioned how deeply grateful he felt for all the kindness he met with, that he hoped to return again and that he trusted that all this would only tend to strengthen the ties of friendship between England and Russia. He then pressed and kissed my hand, and I kissed his cheek; upon which he kissed mine in a very affectionate manner … I felt so sad to take leave of this dear amiable young man, whom I really think … I was … in love with.” They did not meet for another thirty-five years, when the tsar visited Windsor in 1874 and Victoria found him “terribly altered, so thin, and his face looks so old, sad and careworn.”

Alexander travelled on to Germany, where he again fell in love, this time with Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt. Alexander’s parents had misgivings when the tsarevich wrote to them from Darmstadt, asking for their approval. But the couple were very much in love, so the emperor and his wife eventually agreed. The princess converted to Orthodoxy as Maria Alexandrovna and a magnificent wedding was held in St Petersburg on 16 April 1841.

Alexander was brought up bearing in mind that one day he would inherit the throne. At an early age, Nicholas I began acquainting his son with affairs of state, appointing him to various government posts. In 1842, when the emperor left St Petersburg for a month, he left his son in command. These periods of deputising gradually grew longer and longer. He was also given positions of responsibility in the army, providing a useful education in the art of war.

All this meant that when the time came to ascend the throne, Alexander II was the best prepared of all the Romanovs. Unlike his father or his own son, none of whom were expected to reign, he had an excellent training and knowledge of the working of government.

Alexander succeeded to the throne on 18 February 1855 and was crowned in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow on 26 August 1856. Along with the throne, he inherited a whole series of problems. After losing the Crimean War, Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Paris, forfeiting a number of possessions and the right to keep a fleet on the Black Sea. The war had revealed the country’s economic and political backwardness. Reforms were urgently needed in every area of public life.

While many were excited by the accession of Alexander II, Russian society as a whole did not seem ready for drastic change in 1855. Some progressive elements did not even envisage the radical transformations later passed by the government. But, gradually, the rest of the country warmed to the idea of reforms.

Alexander II was no radical and did not agree with many of the changes that took place during his reign. But he did not see any other way to solve the country’s problems and restore the Russian Empire to the ranks of the great powers.

Soon, to the horror of conservatives, the Russian press began printing articles that would have earned them a prison sentence under the old regime. All the restrictions introduced by Nicholas I were lifted. Censorship was eased, the military settlements were abolished, foreign passports were issued.

The years from 1856 to 1861 were an age of glasnost – a period of national turmoil, heated debate and arguments over the ways, means and pace of reform. Public opinion fell behind the young emperor, who became known as the “Tsar Liberator.”

The programme of reforms required a great deal of planning in the corridors of power. The tsar was advised by an enthusiastic team of like-minded people, including his brother Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, Yakov Rostovtsev, Pyotr Valuyev and Nikolai and Dmitry Milyutin.

The most important reform was the emancipation of the serfs on 19 February 1861. This bold move gave new rights to an enormous section of the population, bringing in its wake other reforms in the field of government, law, army, finance and education.

What now looks like a handsome gesture in fact horrified the vast majority of peasants. In order to own any land, they had to buy it from the landowner. Yet their only source of income was from toiling the land. The result was a vicious circle. Although freed from the landowners, agricultural labourers now became dependent on the peasant commune.

The landowners also suffered as a result of the reforms. Deprived of a free source of labour, many decided to sell their land to the emerging middle class. The proceeds were either invested in stocks and shares or drunk away. The result was many personal and family tragedies.

In 1864, a new form of self-government at the district and provincial levels. The Zemstvo was an elected assembly with extensive powers to raise money through taxation, which was then spent on hospitals, schools and roads. Here too there were problems. The Zemstvo and the land councils were riddled with bribery and corruption. Funds were embezzled and rural schools, hospitals, roads and bridges were either built badly or not built at all.

Judicial reforms were passed in November 1864. Russia introduced a system of trial by jury and public hearings. A professional bar and the universal right to legal defence were established. The new juries reached some astonishing conclusions, such as the decision to acquit Vera Zasulich, who had shot and wounded Fyodor Trepov, the governor of St Petersburg.

The crushing defeat in the Crimean War demonstrated the urgent need for military reform. This was entrusted to Count Dmitry Milyutin, who was minister for war from 1861 to 1881.

Despite the resistance of conservative generals, Russia began to move towards a system of national conscription. The army was equipped with new, modern weapons. Educational establishments were opened to improve the training of the officer corps. European-style uniforms were introduced. The navy began building the latest class of battleships, called ironclads.

Foreign relations were a problem for Russia following the defeat in the Crimea. In 1856, Alexander II signed the humiliating Treaty of Paris, which turned the Black Sea into a demilitarised zone. This meant that Russia could not have a Black Sea Fleet.

The Crimean War spelt the end of the Congress system, headed by Russia, who had to now cardinally rethink her foreign policy. Prince Alexander Gorchakov was appointed the new minister of foreign affairs. He immediately issued a circular to the other powers, announcing that Russia would henceforth concentrate on domestic matters and refrain from foreign adventures.

Gorchakov’s announcement was not a step towards isolation. Russia hoped to find a new European ally, and cultivated good relations with Bismarck’s Germany. The Caucasian War finally ended in 1859, when Shamil surrendered and swore allegiance to the tsar.

Despite the setback in the Crimean War, the Russian Empire expanded during the reign of Alexander II. In the mid-nineteenth century, Russia paid much attention to the Far East. In 1849, Admiral Gennady Nevelsky explored Sakhalin and the mouth of the River Amur. Russia exploited the weakness of China to sign a favourable border treaty.

In 1860, the town of Vladivostok was founded at the head of the Golden Horn Bay. Although this naval outpost only had two hundred inhabitants, the name of Vladivostok – translated as “ruler of the east” – demonstrated Russia’s clear intention to establish her presence on the Pacific Ocean.

The Russian Empire made even greater territorial acquisitions in Central Asia. Alexander II was persuaded to launch an attack on the khanates of Kokand and Khiva and the emirate of Bukhara. His generals claimed that they would easily overcome local resistance, but the Russian army initially struggled and suffered heavy casualties. The whole of Central Asia was eventually subdued between 1863 and 1881.

So although forced to abandon dreams of controlling the Straits or possessing overseas colonies – Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867 – Russia grew into an enormous continental empire under Alexander II.

Many sections of the population opposed the reforms and enemies of the tsar appeared on both the right and left wings. The peasants were particular disgruntled. The liberalisation of public life led to the emergence of several terrorist organisations whose aim was to kill the emperor. Supported by public opinion, the revolutionaries declared war on the tsar. They made a series of assassination attempts, the last of which was successful.

Alexander was known for his kind heart, geniality, quick mind, good memory and soft character. When Théophile Gautier visited Russia in 1865, he described the emperor: “The sovereign’s short hair frames a high and handsome forehead. His facial features are remarkably correct and might have been carved by an artist. His blue eyes stand out against his brown face, tanned by the wind during long journeys. The outlines of the mouth are as delicate and refined as a Greek sculpture. His majestic, calm and soft facial expression is occasionally set off by a gracious smile.”

Alexander II enjoyed mixed success in international affairs. He brought the Caucasian War to an end (1864) and annexed a series of territories, including the Amur Provinces (1858), Ussuriisk (1860), Turkestan (1867), Emirate of Bukhara (1868), Khiva (1873) and Kokand. Japan recognised Russia’s right to southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (1876). On the other hand, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands were virtually given away to the United States (1867). Instead of the triumphant entry of Russian forces into Constantinople, Russia only acquired insignificant territories in Bessarabia and Asia Minor as a result of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). The pro-German foreign policy brought no real benefit to Russia.

After Russia won the war, but lost the peace at the Congress of Berlin, the nationalist and Pan-Slavic circles were even more critical of Tsar Alexander II. The emperor, meanwhile, lost the support of his children through his unfaithfulness to his sickly wife and his ongoing relationship with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya.

On 16 April 1841, Alexander married Princess Maximiliane Wilhelmine Auguste Sophie Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt. The daughter of Grand Duke Louis II of Hesse-Darmstadt, she converted to Orthodoxy on 5 December 1840 as Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. As empress, Maria won much respect in Russia for her charity work, but constantly suffered from poor health. She died of tuberculosis at the age of fifty-five in 1880.

Despite his initial love for his wife, Alexander entered into a long-term liaison with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya. While Maria was still alive, Ekaterina bore him four children – Georgy, Olga, Boris and Ekaterina. Shortly after his wife’s death, Alexander married Dolgorukaya and even considered making her empress.

Although the “Tsar Liberator” had carried out many important reforms at the start of his reign, many were still unhappy with his policies. The reforms had gradually ground to a halt, while left-wingers regarded the emperor as the symbol of a system that was still, despite the attempts at reforms, essentially unfair.

In 1866, there was a growing conservative backlash against the reforms of Alexander II, particularly after Dmitry Karakozov’s attempts on the life of the emperor outside the Summer Garden on 4 April. But Alexander was stubborn and continued his course.

During and after the Russo-Turkish War, the number of assassination attempts on government officials – and the emperor himself – sharply increased. In January 1878, Vera Zasulich who shot and wounded General Fyodor Trepov, the military governor of St Petersburg. Stepniak Kravchinski killed General Nikolai Mezentsov, the head of the Third Department, in August 1878.

In 1878, Russia took a decisive step towards constitutional government. Plans for a constitution were actively discussed by all sections of society. All this occurred against a background of terror unleashed by the People’s Will, a revolutionary organisation responsible for a series of assassinations.

In early 1880, an agent of an underground terrorist group, People’s Will, managed to gain employment as a stoker at the Winter Palace. This gave him the opportunity to smuggle a small amount of dynamite into the palace cellars every day. On 5/17 February 1880, directly below the imperial dining room, he set up an explosive device with a timer mechanism, designed to kill the whole family when they gathered to at the table. The bomb exploded at the correct time and the dining room was wrecked, but the only fatalities were a dozen sentries. No members of the imperial family were harmed. By a lucky chance, they were awaiting the arrival of the empress’s brother, Prince Alexander of Hesse-Darmstadt, and so were dining later than usual that day.

A week later, Maria Fyodorovna described the attack in a letter to her younger brother, Prince Valdemar of Denmark: “We were getting ready to dine that day. Uncle Alexander of Hesse was arriving at six o’clock and Sasha was meeting him at the station, so supper was delayed by half an hour and the explosion went off between 6:15 and 6:30, i.e. when we were all supposed to be sitting at the table. I arrived at 6:30, immediately after the blast, and found all the servants in complete disarray. No one realised what had happened; at first, they thought that gas had exploded, but all the gas appliances were turned off and there was complete darkness in the corridor. It was full of smoke and you could smell gunpowder everywhere. No, this was not gas! You can believe what sorrow gripped us when we were shown the evidence that this was a specially planted bomb; and all these poor, completely innocent sentries, who fell victim to the diabolical villainy of these scoundrels. Ten killed and forty-five injured. It is too awful to even think about!”

After this unsuccessful attempt, Alexander II founded a special commission to prepare legislation for constitutional charge. By giving the people a limited role in the government of the country, he hoped to pacify the terrorists and revolutionaries by meeting some of their demands. Unfortunately, the emperor did not live to implement his plans. People’s Will carried out a fresh assassination attempt – and this time was successful.

In 1880, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov was appointed the head of the government, with special powers to deal with the terrorist threat. He convinced the emperor that the best way to overcome popular discontent was to implement his plans for an elected parliament. On 1 March 1881, Alexander II approved Count Loris-Melikov’s project, announcing that he had taken the “first step towards a constitution.” Later that day, however, he was murdered by terrorists.

Once again, Russia was unlucky. Since 1879, the People’s Will had made seven attempts to kill the tsar, but each time they had failed. Alexander II was not a coward and, despite the danger to his life, did not change his habits. This was ultimately used by the terrorists, who cared nothing for themselves or for the lives of innocent bystanders, who also died in their bomb attacks.

On 1 March, Alexander II was following his usual routine of driving along the Catherine Canal in a closed carriage. A bomb was thrown under the carriage, but the emperor emerged unhurt. At that fatal moment, a second bomb was thrown...

When the smoke from the explosion dispersed, a terrible scene was revealed. The chief of police wrote: “Twenty people, with wounds of varying degree, lay on the pavement and on the street... Through the snow, debris and blood, you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabres and bloody chunks of human flesh.”

Alexander was carried back to the Winter Palace on a sledge, which quickly filled with his blood. His legs had been torn away and his stomach was ripped open. The emperor died soon afterwards from a loss of blood.

Alexander II was laid to rest alongside Maria Alexandrovna in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on 15 March 1881. He was buried in the uniform of the Preobrazhensky Regiment, without his crown or orders. Not long before his death, he had said that he did not want to “look like a circus monkey” in his coffin. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was later built on the site of his assassination.

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