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Alexander II of Russia

Alexander (Aleksandr) II of Russia (April 29, 1818 - March 13, 1881) was the Emperor (Tsar) of Russia from March 2, 1855 until his assassination.
Born the eldest son of Nicholas I of Russia, Alexander's early life gave little indication of his potential, and up to the time of his accession in 1855, few imagined that he would be known to posterity as a great reformer.

Insofar as he had any decided political convictions, he seemed to be imbued with the reactionary spirit predominant in Europe at the time of his birth, and which continued in Russia to the end of his father's reign. In the period of thirty years during which he was heir-apparent, the moral atmosphere of St. Petersburg was unfavorable to the development of any originality of thought. 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 offense.

(Municipal police officers and actors in imperial theaters, on the contrary, were allowed more latitude, thus showing that functionaries of the government, regardless of the relative inferiority of their office, were more free from censorship than the commoner.)

Alexander received the education commonly given to young Russians of good family at that time: a smattering of a great many subjects, and a good practical acquaintance with the chief modern European languages. He displayed great linguistic ability, and he had an ear even for peculiarities of dialect.

His began his career as an officer of the Guards, modified by the ceremonial duties required of him as heir to the throne. Nominally he held the post of director of the military schools, but he took little personal interest in military affairs. 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.

These tendencies had been fostered by his tutor Zhukovsky[?], the humanitarian poet, who had acquainted the Russian public with the literature of the German romantic school, and these traits remained with Alexander all through life, though they did not prevent him from being severe in his official position when he believed severity to be necessary.

In 1841 he married the daughter of the grand-duke Louis II of Hesse[?], Maximilienne Wilhelmine Marie[?], thereafter known as Maria Alexandrovna. The marriage produced six sons and two daughters.

Alexander did not travel much abroad, for his father, in his desire to exclude from "Holy Russia" the "subversive" ideas then current in Western Europe, disapproved of foreign tours for members of his family (sometimes in vain). Alexander visited England, however, in 1839, and in the years immediately preceding his accession he was entrusted with several missions to the courts of Berlin and Vienna. On March 2, 1855, during the Crimean War, Alexander succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father.

The first year of Alexander's reign was devoted to the prosecution of the war, and after the fall of Sevastopol to negotiations for peace. Then began a period of radical reforms, encouraged by public opinion but carried out with autocratic power. (The rule of Nicholas, which had sacrificed all other interests to that of making Russia an irresistibly strong military power, had been tried by the Crimean War and found wanting. A new system needed, therefore, to be adopted.)

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 pet 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 which he was to play. He moderated, guided and, in great measure, brought to fruition the reform aspirations of the educated classes.

Table of contents

Emancipation of the serfs

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. At first he moved so slowly that many of the impatient, would-be reformers began to murmur at the unnecessary delay. In reality, however, he lost little time.

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. At the same time, plans were formed for building a great network of railways—partly for the purpose of developing the natural resources of the country, and partly for the purpose of increasing its power for defense and attack.

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.

This step was followed by one still more significant. Without consulting his ordinary advisers, Alexander ordered the Minister of the Interior to send a circular to the provincial governors of European Russia, containing a copy of the instructions forwarded to the governor-general of Lithuania, praising the supposed generous, patriotic intentions of the Lithuanian landed proprietors, and suggesting that perhaps the landed proprietors of other provinces might express a similar desire. The hint was taken: in all provinces where serfdom existed, emancipation committees were formed.

The deliberations at once raised a host of important, thorny questions. The emancipation was not merely a humanitarian question capable of being solved instantaneously by imperial ukaz[?] (edict). It contained very complicated problems, deeply affecting the economic, social and political future of the nation.

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 accordingly acquired rights and privileges such as were enjoyed by no other peasantry in Europe.

In the numerous other questions submitted to him he began by carefully consulting the conflicting authorities, and while leaning as a rule somewhat to the side of those who were known as "Liberals," he never went as far as they desired, rather seeking a middle course by which conflicting interests might be reconciled.

On March 3, 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published. Other reforms followed in quick succession during the next five or six years: army and navy re-organization; a new judicial administration based on the French model; a new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure; an elaborate scheme of local self-government for the rural districts and the large towns, 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.

These new institutions were incomparably better than the ones which they replaced, but they did not work such miracles as the inexperienced enthusiasts expected. Comparisons were made, not with the past, but with an ideal state of things which never existed, either in Russia or elsewhere. Hence arose a general feeling of disappointment, which acted on differently-minded people in different ways.

Some of the enthusiasts sank into a skeptical, reactionary frame of mind. Others, with deeper convictions or capable of more lasting excitement, attributed the failure to the fact that only half-measures and compromises had been adopted by the government. Thus appeared in the educated classes two extreme groups: on the one hand, the discontented Conservatives, who recommended a return to a more severe disciplinarian regime; and on the other, the discontented Radicals, who would have been satisfied with nothing less than the adoption of a comprehensive socialistic program. (Between the two extremes stood the discontented Moderates, who indulged freely in grumbling without knowing how to remedy the unsatisfactory situation.)

For some years Alexander, with his sound common-sense and dislike of exaggeration, held the balance fairly between the two extremes; but long years of uninterrupted labor, anxiety and disappointment weakened his zeal for reform, and when radicalism began to resort to the formation of secret societies and to revolutionary agitation, he felt constrained to adopt severe repressive measures.


The revolutionary agitation was of a very peculiar kind. It was confined to a section of the educated classes, and emanated from the universities and higher technical schools. At the beginning of the reform period there had been enthusiasm for scientific as opposed to classical education. Russia required, it was said, not classical scholars, but practical, scientific men, capable of developing her natural resources.

The government, in accordance with this view, had encouraged scientific studies until it discovered to its astonishment that there was some mysterious connection between natural science and revolutionary tendencies. Many of the young men and women, who were supposed to be qualifying as specialists in the various spheres of industrial and commercial enterprise, were in reality devoting their time to considering how human society in general, and Russian society in particular, could be restructured in accordance with newly current physiological, biological and sociological principles.

Some of these young people wished to put their crude notions into practice immediately, and as their desire to make gigantic socialist experiments naturally alarmed the government, the police opposed their activity. Many were arrested and imprisoned or exiled to distant provinces, but the revolutionary work was continued with unabated zeal. Thus arose a struggle between the youthful, hot-headed partisans of revolutionary physical science and the zealous official guardians of political order—a struggle which has made the strange term Nihilism a familiar word not only in Russia but also in western Europe. The movement gradually assumed the form of terrorism, and aimed at the assassination of prominent officials, and even of the emperor himself; the natural result was that the reactionary tendencies of the government were strengthened.

Foreign policy

In foreign policy Alexander showed the same qualities of character as with internal affairs, always trying prudently to steer a middle course. When he came to the throne, a peace policy was imposed on him by circumstances. The Crimean War was still in progress, but as there was no doubt as to the final issue, and the country was showing symptoms of exhaustion, he concluded peace with the allies as soon as he thought the national honor had been satisfied. Prince Gorchakov[?] could then declare to Europe, "La Russie ne boude pas; elle se recueille"; and for fifteen years Alexander avoided foreign complications, so that the internal strength of the country might be developed, while national pride and ambition received some satisfaction by the expansion of new Russian footholds in Asia.

Twice during that period Gorchakov ran the risk of provoking war. The first time was in 1863, when the Western powers seemed inclined to interfere in the Polish question, and the Russian chancery declared categorically that no interference would be tolerated. The second occasion was during the Franco-German War of 1870-71, when the cabinet of St. Petersburg boldly declared that it considered itself no longer bound by the Black Sea clause of the Treaty of Paris.

On both these occasions hostilities were averted. Not so on the next occasion, when Russia abandoned her attitude of non-interference. When the Eastern question was raised in 1875 by the insurrection of Herzegovina, Alexander had no intention or wish to provoke a European war. No doubt he was waiting for an opportunity to recover the portion of Bessarabia which had been ceded by the Treaty of Paris, and he saw, in the disturbed state of Eastern Europe, the possibility of obtaining his desired re-drawing of frontiers; however, he hoped to achieve this purpose by diplomatic means in conjunction with Austria.

At the same time he was anxious to obtain some relief for the Christians of Turkey, thereby affording some satisfaction to his own subjects. As autocratic ruler of the nation which had long considered itself the defender of the Eastern Orthodox faith and the protector of the Slav nationalities, he could not remain inactive during such a crisis, and he gradually allowed himself to drift into a position from which he could not retreat without obtaining some tangible result.

Supposing that the Porte would yield to diplomatic pressure and menace as far as to make some reasonable concessions, he delivered his famous Moscow speech, in which he declared that if Europe would not secure a better position for the oppressed Slavs he would act alone. The diplomatic pressure failed, and war became inevitable.

During the campaign he displayed the same perseverance and moderation that he had shown in the emancipation of the serfs. Some Russians began to despair of success, and advised him to conclude peace on almost any terms, in order to avoid greater disasters. To these, Alexander turned a deaf ear. He brought the campaign to a successful conclusion; but when his more headstrong advisers urged him to insist on terms which would probably have produced a conflict with Great Britain and Austria, he decided, after some hesitation, to make the requisite concessions. He was influenced In this resolution by the discovery that he could not rely on the expected support of Germany; that discovery made him waver in his devotion to the German alliance, which had been the main pivot of his foreign policy. However, his personal attachment to the emperor Wilhelm I of Germany prevented him from adopting a hostile attitude towards the empire he had helped to create.

The patriotic excitement produced by the war did not weaken revolutionary agitation. The struggle between the Terrorists and the police authorities became more and more intense, and attempts at assassination became more and more frequent. Alexander succumbed by degrees to mental depression, produced originally by the disappointments which he experienced in his home and foreign policy. In 1880, after he had reigned twenty-five years, he entrusted to Count Loris-Melikov a large share of the executive power.

In that year the empress died, and a few weeks afterwards the emperor secretly married his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki[?] (1847-1922), who was given the hereditary title Princess Yurievsky. His children with her were immediately legitimized, including Prince Gregory Yurievsky (1872-1913), Prince Boris Yurievsky (born and died 1876), Princess Olga Yurievsky (1874-1925), and Princess Catherine Yurievsky (1878-1959). The emperor also had illegitimate children by other mistresses: a son, Prince Michael-Bogdan Oginski (1848-1909) by Countess Olga Kalinovskaya (1818-1854); a daughter, Antoinette Bayer (1856-1948) by Wilhelmine Bayer, and a son, Joseph Raboxicz (1867-1907) by Princess N. Lubomirska.

Early in 1881, on the advice of Count Loris-Melikov, Alexander II resolved to try the effect of some moderate liberal reforms in an attempt to quell the revolutionary agitation, and for this purpose he caused an ukaz[?] to be prepared creating special commissions, composed of high officials and private personages who should prepare reforms in various branches of the administration.

On the very day on which this decree was signed—March 13, 1881—he fell a victim to a Nihilist plot. While driving on one of the central streets of St. Petersburg, near the Winter Palace, he was mortally wounded by the explosion of some small bombs and died a few hours afterwards.


Preceded by:
Nicholas I
List of Russian Tsars Succeeded by:
Alexander III

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