Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Monarch Profile: Tsar Alexander III of Russia

One of my favorite Russian monarchs, Tsar Alexander III was a great man; both in size and in character. In many ways he was the stereotypical Russian tsar, but in a positive way. His massive, bearded appearance exuded strength and power but underneath that imposing exterior was a man of simple tastes, a devoted family man and music-lover. Today, most historians are critical of his reign, seeing nothing more than a reactionary monarch who suppressed any sort of progress or innovation with little concern for the future. In truth, Alexander III was precisely the sort of leader Russia needed at that time. He had seen the terrible consequences of social change being advanced too rapidly and Alexander III was the right man to carefully apply the brakes, when needed, to maintain stability and an orderly march into industrialization and modernity. He was, in many ways, more of a reactionary than his father but he also undertook new initiatives that no Romanov emperor before him would have ever dreamed of doing. He was also simply a good man, a man of character, conviction and possessing a real devotion to his people and country.

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.

As he prepared to one day assume the throne, Alexander gained extensive first-hand experience in both military affairs and civil administration. He saw service in the Russo-Turkish War, sat in on meetings of the Council of Ministers and participated in the activities of the Supreme Administrative Commission. He was already very familiar with the workings of the Russian state and the demands of power as well as having secured the succession with the birth of his first son (Nicholas II) by the time the life of Tsar Alexander II came to a disturbingly violent end when he was assassinated by bomb-wielding revolutionaries on March 1, 1881. On that day his son became Emperor Alexander III and a month later he issued a manifesto, penned with the help of noted monarchist Konstantin Pobedonostsev, in which he reiterated his commitment to maintaining the autocracy. He made it clear that the Russian Empire was an absolute monarchy based on the sacred tenets of the Orthodox Church and that this core of their nation would be defended, no challenge to it would go unanswered and no attack on it would go unpunished. God bless him.

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.

In secular affairs, the idea that Russia under Alexander III was some sort of stagnant, reactionary backwater is totally untrue. Again, he was not averse to any change, he was only averse to changes which threatened the “soul” of Russia. As part of a number of reforms to improve the economy and recover from the war with Turkey he abolished the “soul tax” in 1887, cut taxes for the peasants and enacted child labor laws, forbidding children under 12 from working and reducing the number of hours children under 15 could work. In the burgeoning factories of Russia strikes were illegal but an official inspector of factories was set up to ensure that proper working conditions were maintained. As is always the case, not all of the new regulations were obeyed and no bureaucracy can prevent every problem but it shows that the Tsar was not determined to keep everything exactly as it had always been. If a good case could be made for changes that would benefit the Russian people, he willingly accepted them. Domestic industry was protected from foreign competition, railroads were built and a trade deficit became a trade surplus. Russia may not have been modernizing as fast as some wished but it undoubtedly was modernizing.

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.

The result was the negotiation and finally the signing of one of the most shocking alliances of the time. In 1894 Russia formally became an ally of the French Third Republic. Some had advocated this for some time since France had long been a major source of investment in Russia but by the new treaty Russia agreed to support France if she were ever attacked by Germany and in return France agreed to support Russia were she to be attacked by Germany or by Austria. Today most histories make little mention of what a stunning move this was. Russia, the most autocratic, devoutly religious absolute monarchy in Europe and France, the most liberal, anti-clerical and proudly revolutionary republic in Europe had pledged to go to war on behalf of each other. True, given the tensions that already existed with Britain, France was the only available option among the major world powers but still, this was a shocking turn of events. France was such an avowedly revolutionary and republican society that even the liberal Kingdom of Italy considered her a threatening source of subversive behavior. Another illustration is that, in Russia, singing the French national anthem, the revolutionary song “La Marseillaise”, was illegal due to its celebration of violent rebellion. Whether this treaty was ultimately to the benefit of Russia remains a debatable point. It was not fully invoked until the outbreak of World War I and while Russia certainly benefited from Germany having to fight on two fronts, it was not enough to save the Russian Empire and the French Republic was, shall we say, less than mournful to see Imperial Russia collapse.

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.

In 1888, near Borki, the train Alexander III and his family were riding in derailed in a horrendous crash. The Tsar, like Hercules taking the place of Atlas, actually held up the entire collapsed roof of the imperial saloon car until help arrived, saving the lives of his wife and children. It was his most tremendous display of strength ever but he was never quite the same afterwards, his heroic actions to save his family permanently weakening him. Afterwards he suffered more and more frequently from terrible back pain and increasing illness. By the time his malady was diagnosed it was too late to save him. He died at Livadia on the Crimea, surrounded by his devoted wife and children like the beloved patriarch he was, on October 20, 1894. Tsar Alexander III was not a perfect man and never claimed to be. Arguably his greatest fault was underestimating his eldest son and not fully preparing him for the throne. His relationship with Mikhail was much more close, the little Grand Duke even being able to dump a bucket of water on his unsuspecting father and be met simply with laughter. However, he kept a firm hand on the wheel of the ship of state and, despite what detractors may say, carefully guided Russia toward beneficial progress while avoided the dangers of violent revolution. He was a man of simple tastes but was not unsophisticated, being a great patron of music and an amateur musician himself (he would often sit in with the other musicians called to play at imperial parties). He was a devoted husband, an upright man, stern when necessary but not harsh or unkind. Overall, Alexander III was a great Tsar.


  1. Thank you for this post. Alexander III was certainly an impressive figure, and one of Russia`s greatest Tsars. With recent events in Russia still fresh in the mind, it is a timely reminder to us all of what a REAL Russian leader looks like. Bravo!!!

  2. Great article! I always liked Tsar Alexander III. I think he is an ideal Tsar on how to handle domestic policies, as revolutionaries are very dangerous, as his unfortunate successor and his entire family proved. I believe that his actions were mostly based on how Alexander II was repaid for his liberal concessions, who was acting upon Nicholas I's idea to get rid of serfdom. The whiny liberals will never get what they want because all they want is more and more. How horrible!

    If the Russian Empire ever gets restored (I pray that it does, though it seems unlikely), they ought to look up to Tsar Alexander III and see how he handled the Russian Empire. It is unfortunate his reign was short lived though. Russian Tsars in general seem to be great leaders, and I don't believe Nicholas II was a bad one either; it's just the Illuminati cabal and the Jewish bankers that orchestrated his demise and he played along with it since he was the nice guy. It seems Alexander III did not die this way because revolutionaries would not dare attack the tsar with the iron backbone.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. Thanks.


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