The future Tsar was born in 1777, a son of the supposedly mad Tsar Paul. Contemporary chroniclers have it that young Alexander was implicated in the murder of his father. This may well be so as the boy had been vigorously educated by a Swiss tutor, a great believer in the French idea of Enlightenment – enlightenment often leads to an excessive wish to reform anything and everything. If you have a mad father you may see killing him as a suitable reform in your life.
Alexander became the emperor in 1801 when he was twenty-four. Very soon he was informing the Polish Diet (or Government) that he hoped to extend free institutions to all countries under his care. As citizens of the Russian Empire soon saw, the Tsar did not have the necessary enthusiasm or will to push for radical reform. He was a flippertigibbit easily attracted by new ideas, but very soon lost interest.
Nothing, for example, was done about the serfs – an eternal problem in Russia. Alexander felt, according to his few writings at the time, that to free the serfs at that stage would be like walking blindfold into a darkened room where danger might lurk. Freeing the serfs, and there were millions, might destroy the fabric of Russian society and lead to dangerous confrontation with the administration.
Very little was done about education, its elementary form being neglected though a few new universities were built (but not necessarily staffed). We are told that fewer than 3% of Russians in Alexander I’s time could read or write.
He did think for a while that he and Russia could do something about Napoleon Bonaparte; after being thrashed at Austerlitz and Friedland, he was happy to make peace with the little Corsican at Tilsit in 1807, after Trafalgar and before Waterloo. At Tilsit he he was advised (by Napoleon) to join him in the Continental Blockade, but this was silly because it adversely affected Russia’s burgeoning trade deals with Great Britain. Uncontented, he grabbed Finland in the north and Bessarabia from Turkey in the south, and then proceeded to war with Persia, which took an unconscionable time to terminate but left Alexander with a big area between the Black and Caspian Seas, later invaluable to Russia for its oilfields.
When Bonaparte realised that Alexander had withdrawn Russia from his prized Continental Blockade (also known to historians as ‘the Continental System’), he took the foolish step of invading the huge country in 1812 where he won a Pyrrhic victory at Borodino and succeeded in taking Moscow, which he found empty, deserted and foodless. It is possible nevertheless that Bonaparte expected Alexander to seek peace but he did not, so the Corsican was forced to retreat (something he always claimed he would never do) because his supply sources would be cut off by the Russian winter, which was (correctly as it turned out) feared.
France’s infamous retreat from Moscow has been examined by so many historians since the event it not worth pursuing here, except to say that Napoleon lost nearly half his army to sickness and starvation, and that his soldiers took to eating first their horses, then each other.
Alexander, however, against his generals’ advice, decided to chase after the French army, and in doing so managed to join the Allies in the great defeat of France at Leipzig. After this the Tsar became a swaggering figure at the Congress of Vienna, during which he got hold of most of Poland as part of his Empire.
As Tsar/Emperor, Alexander swore to crush popular revolutions against legitimate kings and offered to send Russian troops to help quell uprisings in Spain and Italy, in 1820 and 1821. France and Austria said no thanks, and then went ahead to crush the uprisings themselves.
He spent hours in what he believed to be religious meditation, and often spoke about his intention to abdicate. He is supposed to have died of melancholy in the Crimea in 1825, but many Russian people disbelieved this tale, insisting that he had gone to Siberia to become a hermit. In 1865, the authorities, tired of the rumours still buzzing about Alexander’s last moments, ordered his coffin to be opened. It proved to be empty. Neither the Crimea nor Siberia seemed anxious to claim him. Russian writer Pushkin said, “he was the sphinx who took his riddle with him to the grave”.