Three Tsars – Three Alexanders

Alexander I, Tsar of Russia was born in 1777, and was Tsar (King, Kaiser, Emperor etc.) from 1801 when he was 24 until 1825. His father was promisingly known as ‘The Mad Tsar’, but when Paul I was murdered, there exists proof that his son was not very far away.

The first of these Alexanders was himself unstable, probably schizophrenic, though this medical term was unknown. His policies as ruler, if he had any, were full of puttings-off and obvious contradictions. He got his country into the war with France in the War of the Third Coalition in 1805, but after his troops were overwhelmed at Friedland (13, 14 June, 1807) he asked for peace from Napoleon, whom he met personally at Tilsit. At first, Alexander liked and admired the Corsican.

Later, Napoleon’s economic policy, treatment of German and Polish questions, and marriage to a Habsburg princess annoyed and alienated Alexander, who certainly did not understand any of these three moves in the chess game.

And then Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812: the Tsar stayed in St. Petersburg at first, but later emerged to lead his soldiers in the War of the Fourth Coalition. Accompanied by his allies he reached Paris in March, 1814, thus becoming the first invading monarch to enter that city since Henry V of England (1420).

Alexander then attended the Congress of Vienna (q.v.) where he alarmed his allies by insisting on the creation of a Polish Kingdom under his own protection. After Waterloo, he announced his generally misunderstood idea of Christian brotherhood – The Holy Alliance.

Though the spectre of revolution always caused Alexander fear, he did entertain some liberalizing sentiments when he thought of the masses of starving and abused peasants in his own country. These sentiments were probably inspired in him by his good friend the Polish count Czartoryski.

Between 1807 and 1811 the central administration of the Empire was reformed, but in later years the Tsar was badly influenced by two reactionaries called Arakcheyev (military colonies) and the Archimandrite Photius, who was to put it bluntly, xenophobic. Alexander became more of a religious maniac than a ruler of his vast country, and died in mysterious circumstances in December, 1825. In order to quell strong rumours that the Tsar was not dead, and was indeed living under another name in Siberia, the authorities open his coffin in 1865. It was empty.  The hermit Kusmitch who might have been Alexander lived on in Siberia had lived on until 1864, when if was indeed the Tsar he would have been 87 years old.

Alexander II, Tsar of Russia

was born in 1818. He succeeded his father, Nicolas I, in the middle of the Crimean War (q.v.). He was intelligent enough to realise that much of the chaos and confusion of that war was a result of old-fashioned institutions, and the typically Russian systematic repression of the people.He therefore set to work with modernizing reforms in every facet of Russian life. The best and greatest was the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, but quickly afterwards came changes in the Legal Code (1862); the creation of a novel form of local government called the Zemstvo; an encouragement of secondary education, with university reform; changes in army administration, and the substitution of conscription instead of an unavoidable forced levy.

New railways sprang up across the country, greatly increasing the export of Russian grain. Institutions of credit grew apace. Nothing good lasts however, and by 1866 unrest in (Russian) Poland, and a plot to kill him forced the Tsar to allow more than elbow room to the reactionaries. He lapsed into despotism. The reactionaries were pleased.

Throughout the Seventies he bothered himself with expansion: in the Balkans, in Turkey where his troops reached Constantinople in 1878. He also made ‘territorial advances’ in Central Asia, taking Bokhara and Samarkand in 1868. He greatly worried the politicians in Britain with his activities on the borders of Afghanistan.

In St. Petersburg and Kiev, meanwhile, revolutionary societies were fast developing. One of these secret societies actually ‘condemned’ the Tsar to death for failing to summon a Constituent Assembly. After this ‘sentence’ there were a number of failed assassination attempts, until a Polish student blew him to pieces with a hand-thrown bomb on 13 March, 1881. It is ironic that on the morning of his death he had signed his consent to limited constitutional reform. After Alexander II’s death the modest proposals were of course abandoned.

Alexander III, Tsar of Russia

was born in 1845. He succeeded his father (see above), but was no reformer. He was an autocrat who followed a system of repression throughout his reign. He was helped in this by making his chief adviser the Procurator of the Holy Synod, Pobedonostsev.

He rejected any concessions to liberalism, and strengthened Russian hold over all and any other nationalities within his Empire. The Jewish people suffered as badly as anyone could under such a ruler; savage restrictions such as his ‘Temporary Rules’ (which lasted 30 years) were thrust on to the Jews in 1882.

There could be no open political dissent, and thus it was that the first Russian Marxist group was formed in St. Peterburg in 1883. The founding of this secret organisation owes itself directly to Alexander III’s reactionary attitudes.

In spite of the autocratic principles that the Tsar shared with his fellow emperors in Berlin and Vienna, he was unable to maintain diplomatic links with the Dreikaiserbund following the crisis over Bulgaria (1855/6). Alexander was so exercised by German policy that he personally welcomed a visit by the French fleet to Kronstadt in 1891. The naval visit started talks of a convention between Russia and France in 1892. The result was the Franco-Russian Alliance which was formally and secretly confirmed in January, 1884, ten months before the Tsar’s death at only 49.

During the last ten years of his life Alexander ordered the construction of the famed Trans-Siberian Railway, as well as encouraging the development of Russia’s Far Eastern territories. He was the father of the ill-fated Nicolas II, last Tsar of Russia.

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