Alexander III

Born: 1845, St Petersburg
Died: 1894, Livadia (Crimea)

Alexander III was the third child and second son of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna. He was born at the Anichkov Palace in St Petersburg on 26 February 1845.

Alexander was educated by Boris Perovsky, a former commander of the Communication Engineers. The grand duke’s other tutors were such leading Russian scholars as Jacob Grot, Baron Modest Korf, General Mikhail Dragomirov and Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Alexander received a good education and knew German, French and English. His favourite writer was Mikhail Lermontov and he learnt to play the French horn.

The sudden death of his elder brother Nicholas on 12 April 1865 meant that Alexander was now the heir to the Russian throne. He acquitted himself well during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78), when he commanded the Ruschuksky detachment and was awarded the Order of St George (second class).

In the 1860s, Alexander, fell madly in love with his mother’s lady-in-waiting, Princess Maria Mescherskaya. Dismayed to learn that Prince Wittgenstein had made her a proposal in spring 1866, he told his parents that he was prepared to give up his rights to the sovereignty in order to marry his beloved “Dusenka.”

On 19 May 1866, Alexander II informed his son that Russia had come to an agreement with the parents of Princess Dagmar of Denmark, his tenth cousin. Before then, she had been the fiancée of his elder brother Nicholas, who died in 1865. But Alexander refused to travel to Copenhagen, declaring that he did not love Dagmar and wanted to marry Maria Mescherskaya.

The emperor flew into a rage and ordered Alexander to go straight to Denmark and propose to Princess Dagmar. The tsarevich realised that he was not a free man and that duty had to come first. The only thing left to do was to write in his diary “Farewell, dear Dusenka.” Luckily for him, his marriage to Dagmar was a success and “he found great family happiness – so rare among the Romanovs.”

Maria Mescherskaya was forced to leave Russia, accompanied by her aunt, Princess Chernyshova. Almost a year after her first appearance in Paris, the millionaire prince of San Donato, Pavel Demidov, fell head over heels in love with her and the couple married in 1867. Maria died giving birth to a child. Alexander’s reaction to the news of her death and the birth of her child is unknown.

Alexander described his proposal of marriage to Dagmar in his diary: “I decided to begin, and asked her if the king had spoken to her about my proposal and my conversation. She asked me: what conversation? I told her that I had asked for her hand in marriage. She ran towards me and embraced me... I asked her if she could still love me after my dear brother. She replied that she could not love anyone, except his beloved brother, and again kissed me warmly. Tears sprung from both our eyes.”

On 28 October 1866, Alexander married Princess Dagmar of Denmark. She converted to Orthodoxy as Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna.

Small, elegant and charming, Maria Fyodorovna was the complete opposite of Alexander. She adored balls, which he abhorred. She was an accomplished rider, while he feared horses. The tsar did not enjoy riding on horseback. When required, he was hoisted onto an enormous German carthorse. Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy’s famous equestrian statue of the emperor is a remarkably exact likeness.

One of their few points of common interest was a love of painting. The empress was an accomplished artist and several of her works are now in the collections of Russian museums. Alexander III was a connoisseur of art who cultivated the national school of painting, collecting pictures by Russian masters (mostly Realist painters). The Russian Museum was founded at his initiative and awarded the collection of national painting in the Imperial Hermitage. Before the revolution, the Russian Museum carried his name.

Alexander was an exemplary father. He was deeply attached to his wife, whom he called “Minny.” Maria Fyodorovna bore him six children. When he died, she fell into a dead faint. The empress managed to escape from Russia after the revolution, dying in Denmark in 1928 at the age of eighty-one. She spent fifty-two years of her life in Russia.

In July 1869, Alexander and Maria Fyodorovna travelled down the rivers Volga and Don, in order to meet the inhabitants of provincial Russia. Whenever they passed a village or small town on their riverboat, the Schastlivy, the locals would swim up to them on small rafts and ask them to come ashore and visit their town. Alexander was tired and irritated by their persistence, whereas his wife was touched and considered it her duty to fulfil their requests.

The relations between the Tsarevich and Maria Fyodorovna remained strained throughout the entire voyage. On 23 July/3 August, the tensions simmered and broke out in an unpleasant scene, which Maria describes in her diary: “We approached a small town (Khvalynsk), where, once again, a large crowd awaited us. Not for anything would Sasha go out to meet them. He accepted the delegation with bread and salt on board the ship and immediately retired, leaving poor me all alone with all these people, who beseeched me to go ashore, saying that many had come from far away in the hope of seeing us. So I screwed up my courage and, without asking any more questions, began disembarking, so that Sasha was obliged to follow.

“On the jetty, which was beautifully decorated with flowers, they had set an enormous table, groaning under the weight of fruit and snacks. We were immediately invited to sit down and take tea, which I did, while Sasha went off to greet the soldiers. Their joyous faces made such a strong impression on me. Quite old women and men with long, grey beards wept with agitation, so that I almost followed their example, especially when I heard such loud words of gratitude addressed to me when I got up to go. To my surprise, I found Sasha in an accès [fit] of anger, above all because I had gone to the tea party, which he thought went on too long. He threw the lamp on the staircase and, exuding curses, stormed off to his cabin, while I was so embarrassed in front of our company. It was so unpleasant for me to suppose what they might think of him. I know very well that he is not like that at all and that, at the bottom of his heart, he is probably just as touched as we were. Which makes it a double shame for me to see him this way, just because he cannot pull himself together, not even a little, and says that it only annoys him. Babst pulled a face as if to say, ‘he is only a child,’ and so Sasha has the right to behave like that. But I suffer enough at the thought that they all think that way.”

Alexander eventually acquired better manners – no doubt under the influence of Maria Fyodorovna. Although he never enjoyed attending receptions and other official events, he learnt to value the talents of his wife in this field. At official balls in the Winter Palace, which Alexander left at the first opportunity, Maria Fyodorovna could dance until daybreak. Originally founded on political and dynastic interests, their marriage gradually developed into mutual respect and fondness, and these two very different personalities ultimately fell in love with one another.

Alexander became emperor of Russia after the assassination of his father in 1881. He was crowned in Moscow on 15 May 1883, a date he preferred to forget, rather than celebrate: “I do not consider that day a holiday and do not accept any congratulations.”

Maria Fyodorovna described the coronation in a letter to her mother on 19/31 May 1883: “On those days, we morally experienced such strong inner excitement that it seemed to me that an eternity had passed... I felt just like a sacrificial lamb... Sasha, genuflecting, read a wonderful prayer, his voice was completely calm and strong ... everyone wailed, and this was so solemn, stirring and, at the same time, so touching! ... For me, this was the same feeling you experience immediately after giving birth, that is the only thing I can compare it to... I regarded it all as more like a production of one of Wagner’s operas, in which we were playing the main roles.”

Alexander inherited the throne at a difficult time for Russia. One half of society was discontented at the slow pace of reforms, while the other half feared change. The Russian economy had still not recovered from the war with Turkey. The widespread terror unleashed by revolutionaries had led to the formation of a counter-revolutionary group of monarchists called the Holy Militia.

On the day of his father’s death, the new tsar left the Winter Palace and shut himself up in Gatchina, where the royal palace had an underground passage leading to the park. Gatchina remained his hiding place for many years. From there, he set about restoring law and order in Russia.

Alexander III feared the terrorist attacks that had haunted his family’s existence since the mid-1860s. For the same reason, he delayed his coronation in Moscow for two and a half years. Night and day, sentries guarded the rooms of the “prisoner of Gatchina,” as the tsar was popularly known.

Alexander’s former tutor, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, advised the emperor to always lock the door before going to bed, “not only in the bedroom, but in all the adjacent rooms, right up to the outside door.” He warned him to “check every evening, before going to bed, that the sentries are still there – their throats can so easily be cut.” The tsar was also supposed to look “under the furniture to see that all is in order.”

Alexander III had good reason to fear assassins. In the 1880s, the People’s Will made at least five attempts on his life. Despite the successes against the terrorist threat, Alexander still feared assassination attempts. Because of his paranoia, he is said to have shot an officer of the guard, Baron von Reutern. The tsar unexpectedly entered the duty room, and saw Reutern hide something behind his back. Thinking it was a gun or a bomb, he shot the officer, but it was only a cigarette.

From an early age, Alexander was an opponent of Western reforms and any institution that might undermine the autocracy. Ascending the throne, he dismissed his father’s government of liberal ministers, headed by Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov.

The new tsar cracked down on dissent and unrest. With the help of government provocations and the recruitment and bribery of revolutionaries, the police managed to neutralise the most dangerous members of People’s Will.

The reign of Alexander III was known as the age of the “national autocracy” – in direct contrast to the Western-leaning policies of Alexander II. One of the most influential figures of the 1880s was Mikhail Katkov, a journalist who published the Moscow News. He supported the idea of a “national autocracy,” with the nobility acting as a “living link” between the tsar and the people.

Katkov drafted Alexander III’s Manifesto of Unshakeable Autocracy, issued on 29 April 1881, which proclaimed: “Amid our great sorrow, the voice of God commands us to take up vigorously the task of governing ... with faith in the strength and truth of the autocratic power that we have been called upon to affirm and safeguard for the popular good from any infringement.” The manifesto paved the way for an attack on the reforms of Alexander II and even moderate liberalism.

The emperor introduced a series of harsh security measures on 14 August 1881. This was followed by laws designed to ease the life of the peasantry. The tsar lowered redemption payments and the compulsory purchase of peasant plots (1881), founded the Peasant Land Bank (1882) and abolished the poll tax introduced by Peter the Great (1886). He regulated working conditions in factories, limiting the hours worked by women and children (1882).

Alexander III transformed other areas of Russian life, provoking discontent among many sections of the population. The intelligentsia condemned the new university statutes, abolishing the autonomy of the universities (1884). They also condemned the decision of Count Ivan Delyanov, minister of education, to prohibit the “children of servants, laundresses and cooks” from studying at grammar schools (1888).

Alexander III disliked foreigners and non-Russian ethnic groups. He pursued a policy of russification, imposing the Russian language on all inhabitants of the empire. The policy of “national autocracy” led to outbursts of Russian nationalism and Jewish pogroms. Although the authorities used force to put down the pogroms and punished the ringleaders, the government continued to oppress the Jews. Strict quotas were introduced on the number of Jews admitted to higher education. Many professions and towns were closed to Hebrews. In 1891, almost twenty thousand Jewish inhabitants were evicted from Moscow.

On 2 July 1886, Alexander III amended the fundamental laws governing the rules of succession, which had been drawn up by Paul I in 1797. Over the intervening hundred years, the imperial family had grown in size. By 1894, there were forty-six members, which was an enormous drain on the national budget. Alexander III ruled that only sons and paternal grandsons of emperors could be called grand dukes.

The emperor firmly adhered to the principle of “Russia for Russians” and strengthened the power of the administration. Alexander III attempted to overturn the financial reforms of the 1860s, developing an economic version of the doctrine of “national autocracy,” based on the increased power of the state. He limited the powers of the Zemstvo and other elected organs.

In foreign policy, Alexander III initally continued his father’s foreign political course. When he succeeded to the throne, negotiations were more or less completed for an alliance between Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, by which each country agreed to observe a friendly neutrality towards one another, should any one of them be engaged in a war with a fourth state. In June 1881, Alexander confirmed Russia’s participation in this “Three Emperors’ League” for three years. When the treaty expired in 1884, he extended it for another three years following a summit of the three emperors at Skierniewice in September 1884.

Without mentioning the actual treaty, which was a state secret, Maria Fyodorovna suggested in a letter to her mother that the meeting with the German and Austrian emperors was an inevitable evil, rather than a mark of close friendship. She wrote to Queen Louise of Denmark from Skierniewice on 3/15 September 1884: “We have just met the emperor of Austria at the station mit Pauken u. Trompeten [with drums and trumpets] and now, half an hour later, we are planning to meet the old E[mperor] Wilhelm in the exact same way. I will go into dinner with both of them, as none of them wanted to follow behind the other. I anticipate with pleasure reading in the newspapers of this interesting meeting of the three emperors. If only peace becomes more secure: that is all one can hope for, et on paye bien volontiers de sa personne [and is worth making a sacrifice over], if, as a result, something worthwhile really does come out of it.”

Alexander III clearly joined the Three Emperors’ League for practical, rather than political reasons. As a Russian nationalist, he was extremely suspicious of Germany – and particularly Austria-Hungary and her Balkan ambitions. He nevertheless believed that Bismarck was interested in maintaining the balance of peace in Europe.

The moods of the Pan-Slavic circles in Russia and the growing suspicions that Austria was acting against Russian interests in Bulgaria played an important role in Alexander’s failure to extend the Three Emperors’ League when the alliance expired again in 1887. The treaty was replaced by a Russo-German neutrality pact, which also ran for three years.

After Kaiser Wilhelm II became the emperor of Germany and forced Chancellor Bismarck into retirement, the Russo-German neutrality pact was not extended beyond 1890. Alexander III began to edge towards France. Although the tsar was prejudiced against the republican form of government, Russia was a natural friend of France. Both countries had much in common, above all a desire to restrain Germany. In 1891, Alexander III finally took the decision to draw up a new Franco-Russian alliance.

In late summer 1891, when the Russian imperial family was visiting their relatives in Denmark, Kaiser Wilhelm II invited Alexander III to visit him in Berlin on his return journey. The request was passed on through the Russian ambassador in Berlin, Count Shuvalov. From Fredensborg Palace on 14 October 1891, Alexander III wrote his reply to Count Shuvalov, which clearly betrays his new political course: “Dear Count Pavel Andreyevich, I am very grateful to you for your communiqué. I confess to being surprised – or, rather, not surprised – at the pretensions of the young upstart emperor. I confess that I am not particularly disposed to be kind to Germany right now. She causes us too much harm, wherever she can, greatly interfering with and spoiling our last loan. What are the reasons for all these frequent meetings with the emperor, who stubbornly refrains from discussing politics? You never get what it is he wants and, ultimately, it was his own personal acts and schemes that hastened our rapprochement with France.”

In 1892, Russia signed a military alliance with France to counterbalance German aggression in Europe, providing many years of peace and stability on the continent. Personally, Alexander III believed that Russia only had two allies – her army and navy – and that the other European nations were not interested in a strong and powerful Russia.

The emperor was independent in his dealings with foreign kings. Once, when fishing at Gatchina, an aide-de-camp informed him that an important telegram had arrived from Europe. Alexander replied: “While the Russian tsar is fishing, Europe can wait.” By skilful diplomacy, he managed to raise Russia’s prestige on the international arena, while maintaining law and order inside his own borders. For this, the tsar was known as the “peace-maker.” Throughout his reign, he was careful to keep Russia out of wars.

Although German in blood, Alexander III was Russian in character. He was physically strong and deeply religious. The emperor did not like lies, flattery, gossip, ceremonies or long speeches. In his private life, he was modest and simple. He liked eating, drinking and hunting, shooting dozens of bison at the imperial hunting estate in Bialowieza Forest.

Russia had its share of natural disasters under Alexander III. In 1891, the harvests failed in a third of Russian provinces. There was an unprecedented famine, which took the lives of over half a million people.

The new army uniforms introduced by Alexander II were replaced by the sort of clothes that Alexander III liked to wear. Russian soldiers now dressed in short caftans, wide trousers, coloured sashes and lambskin hats – or what one of the officers described as a “moujik’s uniform.” In a return to the days before Peter the Great, all civil servants and officers were encouraged to grow thick beards.

Alexander III did not look like a sovereign, with his “slovenly, bear-like” appearance. He seemed more like a “Russian peasant from the central provinces ... in a sheepskin coat and bast shoes.” But although his manners might not have been polished, “his fine heart, his strong character, his calmness, his sense of fairness were all reflected in his face, giving him the look of true majesty.”

Alexander’s political and moral views diverged widely from those of his late father. The emperor condemned frivolous behaviour and marital infidelity. He was particularly intolerant of his father’s infatuation with Princess Ekaterina Dolgorukaya. He was particularly feared by the younger and more dissolute members of the family. Alexander believed that, as the nation’s first family, they should all set an example to their subjects. He greatly disliked his uncle, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, for his liberal beliefs and scandalous love affairs.

Alexander III was very strict with the Romanov family. His children did not have any independence and he reduced the number of grand dukes. All relatives were the objects of the tsar’s will and obliged to serve. The emperor’s word was law. One of his courtiers said that when the tsar spoke, “he gave the impression of being on the point of striking you.”

As a young man, Alexander III had been tutored by Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a reactionary conservative. The tsar’s innate ability “to sense what is coming” was possibly the reason for his decision to “freeze” Russia and call a halt to reforms. He feared greatly for the lives of his family, who were the constant target of terrorists. The result was a clampdown on civil rights and sweeping new police powers.

Count Sergei Witte wrote in his memoirs: “Alexander III had a steely will and character. He was a man of his word, royally noble and with royal, sublime intentions. He had neither personal ambition nor personal vanity. His persona was indissolubly linked to the good of Russia, as he understood it. He had an average mind and education. He was courageous – and not just in word and theatrically. He did not say things like, ‘I am not afraid of death,’ as Nicholas II does, but, by his behaviour, his life, acted in such a way that it never entered anyone’s head that he was ‘afraid of death.’ Emperor Alexander III might not have been loved, he might have been criticised, his measures might have been considered harmful. But one could not help admiring him – and he was admired by the whole world and the whole of Russia.”

Alexander III was, as Sergei Witte wrote in his memoirs, “below average in intelligence and education.” But the emperor had his compensations: “Perhaps he did not have a good mind if the word is taken to mean mind-intellect. But he had an outstanding mind in the sense of mind-heart, the kind of mind that enables one to look ahead, to sense what is coming. Such a mind is more important than mind-intellect.” Witte described Alexander III as a model family man, a model leader and a model master. He recalled: “For the emperor, there was no difference between word and deed.”

The final years in the life of Alexander III were filled with anxiety and stress. Everyone noticed how much the tsar had changed. Worrying constantly about the numerous problems facing the nation, he lost his previous calm and assurance: “I feel that things are not going the way they should in Russia ... we have a terrible evil – the absence of law.”

A strong and powerful man, who could once bend an iron poker, Alexander now began to suffer from various ailments. He was particularly troubled by kidney problems. Some said that the cause was the tsar’s love of drinking. Others believed that this was a result of injuries sustained in a railway accident in 1888.

On 17 October 1888, the imperial train crashed near the station of Borki in the Ukraine. Seven carriages were crushed to pieces, killing or wounding almost fifty people. At the moment of the crash, the tsar and his family were in the dining car. The roof collapsed, but Alexander held up the remains with his bare hands, allowing his wife and children to clamber out of the wreckage.

Russian legal expert Anatoly Koni described the emperor in 1892: “Sometimes supporting his head with his hand, he did not take his eyes off me... In his eyes, so deep and touching, there shone a soul scared by its trust in people, and helpless against falsehood, something he himself was incapable of... His whole figure; his head slightly inclined to one side; his forehead covered in deep wrinkles, the result of grave thoughts and bitter disappointments – everything evoked a feeling of genuine pity for this person shouldering such excruciating burdens.”

In January 1894, Alexander III caught influenza, leading to complications in the lungs. After contracting pneumonia, his health gradually worsened and he went to recuperate at Livadia in the Crimea. Maria Fyodorovna wrote to her father, King Christian IX of Denmark, on 4/16 September 1894: “Sasha and I regret so much that we cannot come and see you this year. I so hoped that we might, as poor Sasha has not been well all summer. I think that he did not want to visit you and become a potential patient – and neither could he enjoy himself at yours the way he did in previous years! ... I hope to God that he gets better. It torments me to see poor, dear Sasha so changed, always tired and unhappy, and me not able to do anything to help him.”

On 20 October 1894, Alexander III died in the arms of Maria Fyodorovna. The medical team attending the emperor wrote: “At 2:15 pm on 20 October, Emperor Alexander Alexandrovich quietly passed away into the bosom of God.” The official cause of death was published the next day: “Diagnosis of the illness of His Majesty Emperor Alexander III, leading to his death: chronic interstitial nephritis with consequent failure of the heart and blood vessels, hemorrhagic infarct in the left lung with subsequent inflammation... Signed by Leiden, Zakharin, surgeon Girshev, Professor N. Popov, honorary surgeon Veliaminov, minister of the imperial court Count Vorontsov-Dashkov.”

Maria Fyodorovna described her husband’s death in a letter to her mother, Queen Louise of Denmark: “I began writing this letter, alongside my deeply beloved Sasha, now everything is over! My life is broken forever, for how can I imagine living without he who was everything to me! ... I had hoped that God would not allow this, that He would take pity, hearing all those millions of prayers addressed to Him for the life of my angel Sasha. But no. It is impossible to describe the pain with which my heart is overflowing! ... If only it were me, but why him, who was so kind and so necessary, not only to me and the children, but to everyone, his country, his people, to the whole world... Thank God, in the final days he let me do everything for him, as he could no longer do anything himself, and did not want to let the chamberlain help him. Every evening, he thanked me so touchingly for my help... He was always patient and never complained, only I saw how sad and unhappy he was, poor thing, when he looked at me with eyes full of sorrow... At 6.30, he was allowed to get up and, with great difficulty, was moved into a comfortable armchair and taken into the hall, where he remained until the end... The whole family went in to him. He kissed everyone and even, at such a moment, remembered that it was Ella’s birthday. He congratulated her and demanded ebullience. Father Yanyshev was still not there and, apparently sensing the end approaching, he asked several times if he would be long coming. When Yanyshev finally arrived, Sasha breathed: ‘I am so tired.’ He himself read two prayers after Yanyshev, taking communion with joy and tranquillity... After communion, everyone left, leaving us alone with the children and Alix, who was so nice and shared everything with us, as if she has always been one of us. He asked for the priest from Kronstadt (I think you have heard of him) to come and pray for him. This was a particularly poignant moment, demonstrating the wonderfully meek soul of my angel Sasha. The priest quietly prayed, placing both hands on his head and kissing it. Every time he stopped, Sasha said: ‘Again, it is better that way, as if it helps.’ Sasha then told him the most wonderful things, that the Lord had heard his (the priest’s) prayers, because he was so good and his faith was so strong, that he was close to our Lord, and finally said: ‘You are a holy man!’ ... Until the last minute, he remained fully conscious. He spoke with us and looked at us, until, quietly, without any struggle, he fell asleep in my arms forever.”

Alexander III was buried in the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg. The tsar died convinced that he had fulfilled his main duty in life – to protect Russia from upheavals. He did so by ruling with an iron fist and a steadfast mind. In 1907, when Sergei Witte was asked how to save Russia, he pointed to a portrait of Alexander III and said: “Resurrect him!”

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