Alexander I of Russia



Alexander I of Russia (December 23, 1777 – December 11, 1825) served as Emperor of Russia from 23 March 1801 to 1 December 1825 and Ruler of Poland from 1815 to 1825, as well as the first Grand Duke of Finland.

Alexander I was born in Saint Petersburg to the royal family of Emperor Paul I, and Maria Fyodorovna (Sophie Dorothea), daughter of the Duke of Württemberg. Alexander succeeded to the throne after his father was murdered, and ruled Russia during the chaotic period of the Napoleonic Wars. In the first half of his ruling Alexander tried to introduce liberal reforms, while in the second half he turned to a much more arbitrary manner of conduct, which led to the abolishing of many early reforms. In foreign policy Alexander gained certain success, having won several campaigns. In particular under his rule Russia acquired Finland and part of Poland. The strange contradictions of his character make Alexander one of the most interesting Tsars. Adding to this, his death was shrouded in mystery, and location of his body remains unknown.

Soon after his birth on December 23, 1777, Alexander was taken from his father, Paul I of Russia, by his grandmother, Catherine the Great, who utterly disliked Paul and did not want him to have any influence on the education of the future emperor. Some sources allege that she created the plan to remove Paul from succession altogether. Both sides tried to use Alexander for their own purposes and he was torn emotionally between his grandmother and his father, the heir to the throne. This taught Alexander very early on how to manipulate those who loved him, and he became a natural chameleon, changing his views and personality depending on whom he was with at the time. Reared in the free-thinking atmosphere of the court of Catherine, he had imbibed the principles of Rousseau's gospel of humanity from his Swiss tutor, and the traditions of Russian autocracy from his military governor, Nikolay Saltykov. Andrey Afanasyevich Samborsky, whom his grandmother chose for his religious upbringing, was an atypical, unbearded Orthodox priest, who had long lived in England and taught Alexander (and his younger brother Constantine) English language. Young Alexander sympathised with French and Polish revolutionaries, however, his father seems to have taught him to combine a theoretical love of mankind with a practical contempt for men. These contradictory tendencies remained with him through life and are observed in his dualism in domestic and military policy.

On October 9, 1793 when Alexander was still 15 years old, he married 14 year old Louise of Baden. Meanwhile, the death of Catherine in November 1796 before she could appoint Alexander as her successor, brought his father, Paul I, to the throne instead. Paul's attempts at reform were met with hostility and many of his closest advisers as well as Alexander were against his proposed changes. Paul I was murdered in March, 1801.

Alexander I succeeded to the throne on 23 March 1801, and was crowned in the Kremlin on September 15 of that year. Historians still debate about Alexander’s role in his father's murder. The most common opinion is that he was in favour of taking the throne but insisted that his father should not be killed.

At first, indeed, this exercised little influence on the Emperor's life. The young tsar was determined to reform the outdated, centralized systems of government that Russia relied upon. While retaining for a time the old ministers who had served and overthrown the Emperor Paul, one of the first acts of his reign was to appoint the Private Committee, comprising young and enthusiastic friends of his own - Victor Kochubey, Nikolay Novosiltsev, Pavel Stroganov and Adam Jerzy Czartoryski - to draw up a scheme of internal reform, which was supposed to result in an establishing of constitutional monarchy in accordance with teachings of the Age of Enlightenment. Also Alexander wanted to resolve another crucial issue in Russia - the future of the serfs, although this was not achieved until 1861.

In the very beginning of Alexander's rule several notable steps were made, including establishing freedom for publishing houses, the winding down of activities in the intelligence services and prohibition of torture. Several years later the liberal Mikhail Speransky became one of the Tsar's closest advisors, and drew up many plans for elaborate reforms. Their aims, inspired by their admiration for English institutions, far outstripped the possibilities of the time, and even after they had been raised to regular ministerial positions little of their programs could come to pass. Russia was not ready for a more liberal society; and Alexander was "a happy accident" on the throne of the tsars. He spoke, indeed, bitterly of "the state of barbarism in which the country had been left by the traffic in men."

The codification of the laws initiated in 1801 was never carried out during his reign; nothing was done to improve the intolerable status of the Russian peasantry; the constitution drawn up by Mikhail Speransky, and passed by the emperor, remained unsigned. Finally elaborate intrigues against Speransky initiated by his political rivals led to the loss of support of Alexander and subsequent removal in March 1812.

In Russia, too, certain reforms were carried out, but they could not survive the suspicious interference of the autocrat and his officials. The State Council under the Governing Senate, endowed for the first time with certain theoretical powers, became slavish instruments of the Tsar.

The elaborate system of education, culminating in the reconstituted, or newly founded, universities of Dorpat (Tartu), Vilna (Vilnius), Kazan and Kharkov, was strangled in the supposed interests of "order" and of the Russian Orthodox Church; while the military settlements which Alexander proclaimed as a blessing to both soldiers and state were forced on the unwilling peasantry and army with pitiless cruelty. Though they were supposed to improve living conditions of soldiers, the economic effect in fact was poor and harsh military discipline caused frequent unrest.

After becoming a Christian the Emperor gave great support to the Bible Society, which provided bibles for the poor. The Emperor saw it as a great blessing to the people but the Roman Catholic Archbishop and the Orthodox Metropolitans regarded it as a work of the Devil. They were forced to serve on its committee side by side with Protestant pastors; even though they regarded any tampering with the letter of the traditional documents of the Church as mortal sin.

Once a supporter of limited liberalism, as seen in his approval of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Poland in 1815, from the end of the year 1818 Alexander's views began to change. A revolutionary conspiracy among the officers of the guard, and a foolish plot to kidnap him on his way to the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle, are said to have shaken the foundations of his Liberalism. At Aix he came for the first time into intimate contact with Metternich. From this time dates the ascendancy of Metternich over the mind of the Russian Emperor and in the councils of Europe. It was, however, no case of sudden conversion. Though alarmed by the revolutionary agitation in Germany, which culminated in the murder of his agent, the dramatist August von Kotzebue (March 23, 1819), Alexander approved of Castlereagh's protest against Metternich's policy of "the governments contracting an alliance against the peoples", as formulated in the Carlsbad Decrees of July 1819, and deprecated any intervention of Europe to support "a league of which the sole object is the absurd pretensions of absolute power."

He still declared his belief in "free institutions, though not in such as age forced from feebleness, nor contracts ordered by popular leaders from their sovereigns, nor constitutions granted in difficult circumstances to tide over a crisis. "Liberty", he maintained, "should be confined within just limits. And the limits of liberty are the principles of order."

It was the apparent triumph of the principles of disorder in the revolutions of Naples and Piedmont, combined with increasingly disquieting symptoms of discontent in France, Germany, and among his own people, that completed Alexander's conversion. In the seclusion of the little town of Troppau, where in October 1820 the powers met in conference, Metternich found an opportunity for cementing his influence over Alexander, which had been wanting amid the turmoil and feminine intrigues of Vienna and Aix. Here, in confidence begotten of friendly chats over afternoon tea, the disillusioned autocrat confessed his mistake. "You have nothing to regret," he said sadly to the exultant chancellor, "but I have!"

The issue was momentous. In January Alexander had still upheld the ideal of a free confederation of the European states, symbolised by the Holy Alliance, against the policy of a dictatorship of the great powers, symbolised by the Quadruple Treaty; he had still protested against the claims of collective Europe to interfere in the internal concerns of the sovereign states. On 19 November he signed the Troppau Protocol, which consecrated the principle of intervention and wrecked the harmony of the concert.

Alexander married Princess Louise of Baden (Elisabeth Alexeyevna) on October 9, 1793. He later told his friend Frederick William III that the marriage, a political match devised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great, regretfully proved to be a misfortune for him and his wife. Their two children of the marriage died young.

Grand Duchess Maria of Russia (29 May 1799 - 8 July 1800)

Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia (16 November 1806 - 12 May 1808)

Their common sorrow drew husband and wife closer together. Towards the close of his life their reconciliation was completed by the wise charity of the Empress in sympathising deeply with him over the death of his beloved daughter Sophia, by Princess Maria Naryshkina. The Emperor in his lifetime had 9 illegitimate children.

In the autumn of 1825 the Emperor undertook a voyage to the south of Russia due to the increasing illness of Alexander's wife. During his trip he himself caught a cold which developed into typhus from which he died in the southern city of Taganrog on December 1, 1825. His wife died a few months later as the emperor's body was transported to St. Petersburg for the funeral. He was interred at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg on March 13, 1826.

The unexpected death of the Emperor of Russia far from the capital caused persistent rumors that his death and funeral were staged while the emperor allegedly renounced the crown and retired to spend the rest of his life in solitude. It is rumored that a "soldier" was buried as Alexander or that the grave was empty or that a British ambassador at the Russian court said he had seen Alexander boarding a ship. Some say the former emperor became a monk in either Pochaev Lavra or Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra or elsewhere. Many people, including some historians, supposed that a mysterious hermit Feodor Kuzmich (or Kozmich) who emerged in Siberia in 1836 and died in the vicinity of Tomsk in 1864 was in fact Alexander I under an assumed identity. While there are testimonies that "Feodor Kozmich" in his earlier life might have belonged to a higher society his identity as Alexander I was never established beyond the reasonable doubt. In 1925 the Soviets opened Alexander's tomb and did not find a body.

The heir presumptive, Tsesarevich and Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich had in 1822 renounced his rights of succession, but this act was not publicly announced, nor known to anybody outside of few people within the tsar's family. For this reason, on November 27 (O.S.), 1825 the population, including Constantine's younger brother Nicholas, swore allegiance to Constantine. After the true order of succession was disclosed to the imperial family and general public, Nicholas I ordered that the allegiance to him to be sworn on December 14, 1825. Seizing the opportunity, the Decembrists revolted, allegedly to defend Constantine's rights to the throne, but in fact - in order to initiate the change of regime in Russia. Nicholas I brutally suppressed the rebellion and sent the ringleaders to the gallows and Siberia.

Some confidantes of Alexander I reported that in the last years the Emperor was aware that the secret societies of future Decembrists were plotting the revolt, but chose not to act against them, remarking that these officers were sharing "the delusions of his own youth." Historians believe that these secret societies appeared after the Russian officers returned from their Napoleonic campaigns in Europe in 1815.

Alexander I was the godfather of future Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom who was christened Alexandrina Victoria in honor of the tsar.

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