Alexander (Aleksandr) II Nikolaevich (Moscow, 29 April 1818 – 13 March 1881 in St. Petersburg) was the Tsar (or Emperor) of the Russian Empire from 3 March 1855 until his assassination in 1881. He was also the Grand Duke of Finland and King of Poland until 1867 when it was annexed into the Russian Empire.
Born in 1818, he was the eldest son of Tsar Nicholas I and Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. His early life gave little indication of his ultimate potential; until the time of his accession in 1855, few imagined that he would be known to posterity as a leader able to implement the most challenging reforms undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great.
In the period of over thirty-six years during which he was heir apparent, the atmosphere of St Petersburg was unfavorable to the development of any intellectual or political innovation. Government was based on principles under which all freedom of thought and all private initiative were, as far as possible, suppressed vigorously. Personal and official censorship was rife; criticism of the authorities was regarded as a serious offence. This was also regarded as one of the reasons which led to his assassination.
Under supervision of the liberal poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexander received the education commonly given to young Russians of good families at that time: a smattering of a great many subjects, and exposure to the chief modern European languages. He took little personal interest in military affairs, but did take a personal interest in Vasily Zhukovsky, with whom he embarked on a short and fleeting sexual relationship. To the disappointment of his father, who was passionate about the military, he showed no love of soldiering. Alexander gave evidence of a kind disposition and a tender-heartedness which were considered out of place in one destined to become a military autocrat.
Alexander II succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1855. The first year of his reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean War, and after the fall of Sevastopol to negotiations for peace, led by his trusted counselor, Prince Gorchakov. Then he began a period of radical reforms, encouraged by public opinion but carried out with autocratic power. All who had any pretensions to enlightenment declared loudly that the country had been exhausted and humiliated by the war, and that the only way of restoring it to its proper position in Europe was to develop its natural resources and thoroughly to reform all branches of the administration. The government therefore found in the educated classes a new-born public spirit, anxious to assist it in any work of reform that it might think fit to undertake.
Fortunately for Russia the autocratic power was now in the hands of a man who was impressionable enough to be deeply influenced by the spirit of the time, and who had sufficient prudence and practicality to prevent his being carried away by the prevailing excitement into the dangerous region of Utopian dreaming. Unlike some of his predecessors, he had no grand, original schemes of his own to impose by force on unwilling subjects, and no projects to lead his judgment astray. He looked instinctively with a suspicious, critical eye upon the panaceas which more imaginative and less cautious people recommended. These character traits, together with the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed, determined the part he would play in bringing to fruition the reform aspirations of the educated classes.
However, the growth of a revolutionary movement to the "left" of the educated classes led to an abrupt end to Alexander's changes when he was assassinated by a bomb in 1881. It is interesting to note that after Alexander became tsar in 1855, he maintained a generally liberal course at the helm while providing a target for numerous assassination attempts (1866, 1873,1880).
Emancipation of the serfs (Main article: Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia)
Though he carefully guarded his autocratic rights and privileges, and obstinately resisted all efforts to push him farther than he felt inclined to go, Alexander for several years acted somewhat like a constitutional sovereign of the continental type. Soon after the conclusion of peace, important changes were made in legislation concerning industry and commerce, and the new freedom thus afforded produced a large number of limited liability companies. Plans were formed for building a great network of railways — partly for the purpose of developing the natural resources of the country.
Then it was found that further progress was blocked by a formidable obstacle: the existence of serfdom. Alexander showed that, unlike his father, he meant to grapple boldly with this difficult and dangerous problem. Taking advantage of a petition presented by the Polish landed proprietors of the Lithuanian provinces, and hoping that their relations with the serfs might be regulated in a more satisfactory way (meaning in a way more satisfactory for the proprietors), he authorized the formation of committees "for ameliorating the condition of the peasants," and laid down the principles on which the amelioration was to be effected.
Alexander had little of the special knowledge required for dealing successfully with such problems, and he had to restrict himself to choosing between the different measures recommended to him. The main point at issue was whether the serfs should become agricultural laborers dependent economically and administratively on the landlords, or whether they should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors. The emperor gave his support to the latter project, and the Russian peasantry became one of the last groups of peasants in Europe to shake off serfdom.
The architects of the emancipation manifesto were Alexander's brother Konstantin, Yakov Rostovtsev, and Nikolay Milyutin. On March 3, 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published.
Other reforms followed: army and navy re-organization (1874); a new judicial administration based on the French model (1864); a new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure; an elaborate scheme of local self-government (Zemstvo) for the rural districts (1864) and the large towns (1870), with elective assemblies possessing a restricted right of taxation, and a new rural and municipal police under the direction of the Minister of the Interior. Alexander II would be the second monarch to abolish capital punishment, a penalty which is still legal (although not practiced) in Russia.
During his bachelor days, Alexander made a state visit to England in 1838. Just a year older than the young Queen Victoria, Alexander took a liking to his distant cousin. The fondness however, was short-lived. While Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert in February 1840, Alexander became a husband the next year. On April 16, 1841 he married Princess Marie of Hesse in St Petersburg, thereafter known as Maria Alexandrovna. The Tsarevitch claimed to be deeply in love with the young Princess and vowed to marry no one else. Marie was the legal daughter of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Wilhelmina of Baden, although there was a question of whether the Grand Duke or her mother's lover, Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, was her actual father. Alexander was aware of the question of her paternity. The marriage produced six sons and two daughters:
Alexander had many mistresses during his marriage and fathered 7 known illegitimate children. These included Antoinette Bayer (20 June 1856-24 January 1948) with his mistress Wilhelmine Bayer; Michael-Bogdan Oginski (10 October 1848-25 March 1909) with mistress Countess Olga Kalinovskya (1818-1854); and Joseph Raboxicz.
On July 6, 1880, less than a month after Tsarina Maria's death on June 8, Alexander formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgorukov, with whom he already had four children.
After the last assassination attempt, Count Loris-Melikov was appointed the head of the Supreme Executive Commission and given extraordinary powers to fight the revolutionaries. Loris-Melikov's proposals called for some form of parliamentary body, and the Emperor seemed to agree; these plans were never realized as on March 13 (March 1 Old Style Date), 1881 Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot.
As he had done every Sunday for a score of years, the tsar went to the Manege to review the Life Guards of the Reserve Infantry and the Life Guards of the Sapper Battalion regiments. He traveled both to and from the Menege in a closed carriage accompanied by six Cossacks with a seventh sitting on the coachman's left. The tsar's carriage was followed by two sleighs carrying, among other, the chief of police and the chief of the tsar's guards. The route, as always, was via the Catherine Canal and over the Pevchesky Bridge.
The street was flanked by narrow sidewalks on both the right and left side. A short young man wearing a heavy black overcoat edged towards the imperial carriage making its way down the street. He was carrying a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief. The youth was Nikolai Rysakov, who later testified: "After a moment's hesitation I threw the bomb. I sent it under the horses' hooves in the supposition that it would blow up under the carriage...The explosion knocked me into the fence."
The explosion, while killing one of the Cossacks and seriously wounding the driver and people on the sidewalk, several critically, had only damaged the carriage. The tsar emerged shaken but unhurt. Rysakov was captured almost immediately. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky heard Rysakov shout out to someone in the gathering crowd. Realizing there was another (if not more than one) bomber near by he urged the tsar to leave the area at once. Alexander agreed to do so but only after he had been shown the site of the explosion. Completely surrounded by the guards and the Cossacks, the tsar made his way over to the hole in the street. It was then that a young man, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, standing by the canal fence, raised up both arms and threw something at the tsar's feet. Dvorzhitsky was later to write:
"I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground. Suddenly, amid the smoke and snowy fog, I heard His Majesty's weak voice cry, 'Help!' Gathering what strength I had, I jumped up and rushed to the tsar. His Majesty was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning on his right arm. Thinking he was merely wounded heavily, I tried to lift him but the tsar's legs were shattered, and the blood poured out of them. Twenty people, with wounds of varying degree, lay on the sidewalk and on the street. Some managed to stand, others to crawl, still others tried to get out from beneath bodies that had fallen on them. Through the snow, debris, and blood you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabers, and bloody chunks of human flesh."
Later it was learned there was a third bomber in the crowd. Ivan Emelyanov stood ready, clutching a briefcase containing a bomb that would be used if the other two bombs, and bombers, failed.
Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace, up the marble staircase, a trail of blood in his wake, and in to his study where, twenty-five years before almost to the date, he had signed the Emancipation Edict freeing the serfs. Alexander with both legs destroyed, was bleeding to death. Members of the Romanov family came rushing to the scene. One of them was the quiet, sensitive thirteen year old boy named Nicky, elder son of the heir-apparent Alexander; the boy would grow up to be tsar in his own right, Nicholas II.
The dying tsar was given Communion and Extreme Unction. There was nothing to do now but wait. When asked how long it would be, the attending physician Dr. S.P. Borkin replied, "Up to fifteen minutes" At 3:30 that day the standard of Alexander II was lowered for the last time.
The assassination also caused a great setback for the reform movement. One of Alexander II's last ideas was to draft up plans for an elected parliament, or Duma, which were completed the day before he died but not yet released to the Russian people. The first action Alexander III took after his coronation was to tear up those plans. A Duma would not come into fruition until 1905, by Alexander II's grandson, Nicholas II, who commissioned the Duma following heavy pressure on the monarchy by the Russian Revolution of 1905.
A second consequence of the assassination was anti-Jewish programs and legislation, deriving in part from the fact that one of those implicated in the assassination, Gesya Gelfman, was of Jewish origin.
A third consequence of the assassination was that suppression of civil liberties in Russia and police brutality burst back with a full force after experiencing some restraint under the reign of Alexander II. Alexander II's murder and subsequent death was witnessed firsthand by his son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, both future Tsars, who vowed not to have the same fate befall them. Both used their military services to arrest protestors and uproot suspected rebel groups, creating further suppression of personal freedom for the Russian people.
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