Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Monarch Profile: Tsar Alexander III of Russia
The future Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias was born Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov in St Petersburg to Tsar Alexander II and Maria von Hesse-Darmstadt. As he was not the eldest son there was initially little expectation that he would ever accede to the throne and so his education was primarily a military one, based on the assumption that, in keeping with tradition, like other younger brothers before him, the army would be his career. However, in 1865 his elder brother Nicholas died and young Alexander suddenly became heir to the Russian throne. The following year he married Princess Dagmar of Denmark, a petite princess with soulful eyes who stood in stark contrast to her muscular 6ft 3in husband. The two were as unalike as two people could be, in personality as well as appearance. She was beautiful and delicate, he was towering and powerful; she was polite, charming and comfortable in high society circles, Alexander was reserved, blunt and detested the snobbery and shallowness of the elite class. Yet, the two had the happiest of marriages. Whereas his father was known for his marital infidelities, Alexander III never took a mistress and would have recoiled at the very thought. The two were extremely devoted and attached to each other and would remain so throughout their lives.
This will always be the most controversial aspect of the reign of Alexander III. He increased the powers of local authorities to deal with subversives, strengthened censorship to block the spread of revolutionary writings and encouraged the development of the Okhrana, usually labeled as the Tsarist "secret police". All of that is true but it is also true that those who emphasize those actions intentionally belittle the other side of the story. Alexander III had watched his father issue numerous liberal reforms and he ended up being blown to pieces for it. One might accuse him of acting out of fear if Alexander II had been assassinated by conservatives or reactionaries but no, he was killed revolutionaries who felt he had not gone far enough fast enough. This was the lesson Alexander III took from the reign of his father. He realized the incontestable truth about liberal revolutionaries/radical leftists; that when people are seeking to create a paradise on earth they will never achieve it and so will never stop demanding more changes in their futile effort to make the impossible possible. Give them one thing and they demand something else, give them that and they demand still more and so on. It will never be enough because their ultimate goal can never be reached. Alexander III realized this and simply decided he would not play their game.
This did not mean that the Tsar was opposed to any and all change; he broke with the majority of conservative opinion for example when he established the office of Land Captain in 1889 in order to ensure that justice was fairly administered to the rural peasantry. What he opposed was revolution and subversion and like any good Russian tsar, his reign hearkened back to the slogan of Nicholas I, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”. This has led many to criticize him for an increase in discrimination against Catholics (mostly in Poland) and pogroms against Jews. What many fail to grasp though is that a pogrom is, by definition, a spontaneous rather than a directed or coordinated event. Alexander III was perfectly willing to tolerate minority peoples and religions in the Russian Empire but he was also adamant that his was a Russian Empire and non-Orthodox faiths were forbidden to proselytize. It must be pointed out that this was once common in virtually every other country, Catholic or Protestant. It only seemed outrageous when Russia did it because so many western nations had ceased taking their religion very seriously. “Live and let live” is easier than converting people, particularly if you are not exactly certain that “your truth” is the true one, and as the 20th Century approached many were not.
When it came to his private life, the stern, imposing autocrat was the quintessential “gentle giant”. Usually reserved in public, around his family Alexander was a fun and playful family man. He preferred to eat simple food with the servants in the kitchen to grand banquets and would often entertain guests by his displays of great strength such as twisting fireplace pokers into bizarre shapes or lifting his wife with one hand and sister-in-law with the other, at arms length, up to shoulder level. He loved the outdoors and was fond of simply throwing a hunk of bread and a sausage into a sack and walking out in the vast Russian wilderness. Alexander was at his most jovial around small children. He would often take them skating but would go out to the pond to “test” the ice first. Walking out onto the frozen water, he would look back to make sure his tiny audience was watching then jump and stomp down as hard as he could, usually breaking through to the icy water immediately at which point Tsar and children alike would howl with laughter -his real intention all along. Of his children the Grand Duke Mikhail was his obvious favorite and the Tsar, sadly, always considered his heir Nicholas something of a disappointment. He worried that he lacked the strength to rule but, rather than increasing efforts to prepare him for the throne, this caused him to exclude Nicholas from state affairs which only increased his inexperience when his time to rule came.
In the area of foreign policy, Alexander III took a very active role and decisive leadership was called for as Russia stood diplomatically isolated at the beginning of his reign after a crisis in the Balkans had upset everyone. In June of 1881 he signed on to the “Three Emperors’ Alliance” which was a 3-year agreement that bound the German, Austrian and Russian emperors to remain neutral if any other member went to war and to maintain the status quo in the Balkans. In 1884 the Tsar renewed the alliance, despite his dislike of the Germans but in 1887 he refused to do so again. This was largely due to events in Bulgaria which revealed that Austria and Russia had conflicting interests in the Balkans and that, when it came down to it, Germany would side with Austria rather than Russia. Germany did not wish to choose between her two allies but when a pro-Austrian Coburg was chosen for the throne of re-emerging Bulgaria the Tsar was perturbed and demanded that Germany choose; Austria or Russia. Not surprisingly, Germany chose Austria. Some efforts were made to maintain some agreement between the two countries but Kaiser Wilhelm II finally dispensed with that as well and Russia was alone again on the international stage.
However, all of that was still many years in the future. There was no hint of anything collapsing during the reign of Tsar Alexander III. Despite some setbacks that were beyond the control of the Tsar (such as a terrible famine) the reign of Alexander III was one of expansion for Russia. Influence in the Balkans had been somewhat halted but Russian influence in east and central Asia continued to move forward. This was the cause of the tension with Great Britain since, as Russian power approached ever closer to Afghanistan, the British became increasingly worried about the security of their Empire of India. In 1885 fighting broke out between the Russians and Afghans and many feared Britain would become militarily involved as well but, thankfully, a diplomatic solution was found. Alexander III was as supportive as anyone of increasing Russian influence but he was no warmonger and knew that Russia need to focus her strength on the growing pains of industrialization and modernity rather than foreign military adventures. A treaty with China secured a foothold in Turkestan for Russia and construction began on the Trans-Siberian railway that would prove so vital to the further development of the country.