Thursday, November 17, 2016

Monarch Profile: Czar Alexander II of Russia

The reign of Alexander II Nikolayevich, Czar of all the Russias, stands as a tragic illustration of the old adage that, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. His time on the Russian throne saw many important changes in Russia and in Russian interaction with the outside world. Actions which Alexander II took had a profound impact on his country and the world around him. At least as important as the actions he took, however, was the fate which befell him as this had a dramatic effect on the nature of Romanov rule in the eras of the two Russian emperors which followed after him. His reign reveals the immense potential that the Russian Empire possessed as well as revealing the great dangers that were festering in its midst which would ultimately lead to the downfall of this empire which had, for centuries, stood as a colossus on the world stage. Czar Alexander II was a man who tried to learn from the successes and failures of those who had gone before him and his own successors would take a hard lesson from how he fared as the autocrat known to history as, “the Czar Liberator”.

His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Alexander Nikolayevich of Russia was born in Moscow on April 29, 1818 to the “Iron Czar” Nicholas I and his consort Charlotte of Prussia. Obviously, with a father known to history as the “Iron Czar” and a mother who was the daughter of a Prussian king, the atmosphere in which Alexander was raised could be called extremely conservative to put it mildly. He had a somewhat liberal tutor for the time, upon whom historians have tended to put rather too much emphasis in explaining the later actions of Alexander but he was given a very well rounded if not extremely intricate education. It was, rather, life experience which was most to shape the views and actions of Alexander in his adult life. As is often the case, he was quite a different character from his very strict father and would come to possess a considerably different worldview from the Russian monarchs who preceded as well as succeeded him. His time as a free and unattached youth was rather short as his father passed away during the height of the Crimean War in 1855 when Alexander was only 37. The state of affairs that existed at the time of his coming to the Russian throne was to effect him profoundly.

On September 7, 1855 Czar Alexander II was crowned “Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias” in a grand and solemn Orthodox ceremony. His distaste for military adventures was certainly impacted by the fact that he came to the throne at a time when Russia had lost the Crimean War and it had fallen to him to agree to the peace terms imposed by the Allies, primarily the British and French empires. The importance of this was quite significant. Czar Alexander II had seen his father stand as the champion of traditional authority in Europe. He had extended help to the Austrian Empire in suppressing rebellion and had offered it to others only to see these same powers collude against Russia, on the side of Ottoman Turkey, or at least take no action to come to the aid of Russia. Not only did this defeat sour Alexander II on the subject of war but it also caused him to take a more pragmatic and less idealistic view of foreign affairs than his father had. There was to be no ‘brotherhood of monarchs’ among the crowned heads of Europe and so, Alexander II would play the diplomatic game and seek to gain what advantage for his country he could and align himself with those powers most similar to Russia in their values, politics and system of government.

Austria and Prussia had at least remained neutral, though Austria had certainly threatened to intercede against Russia which caused a souring of relations which never really ended while he would always harbor suspicions of the French and British. The Crimean fiasco also prompted changes at home. Russia had been defeated, frankly, by relatively minor expeditionary forces which she should have been able to crush swiftly and completely. Czar Alexander II studied the matter closely and found rampant corruption and gross inefficiency in the upper echelons of his empire. This, not without foundation it must be said, he tended to blame on the aristocracy which he viewed as altogether too grasping and devoted to leisure rather than the good of the nation. His hopes, therefore, were placed on the great mass of the Russian peasantry, hard working, God fearing, loyal people who endured much and seemed more simplistic and wholesome.

As a result, not long after taking the throne, Czar Alexander II began instituting a series of reforms such as abolishing corporal punishment, allowing for elected judges and encouraging local self-government. Because of this, some historians have labeled Alexander II a “liberal” but he was far too sensible a man for that. Rather, it was his belief that the autocracy could be maintained as part of a modern state and his reforms were aimed at making Russia more efficient, more effective and more prosperous. He had supported the strict defense of the autocracy of his father and never wavered in that position, however, he thought that with the proper changes Russia could advance to the level of countries like Britain and France which had triumphed over Russia due to how backward Russia was in terms of industry, infrastructure and the state bureaucracy. In general, it was his ministers who carried out these reforms though the Czar did deal personally with some he took a particular interest in and he was instrumental in settling disputes between his top officials.

One act for which Alexander II remains famous in “the New World” was his decision to sell Alaska to the United States of America in 1867. Some, given the immense mineral wealth discovered there later, have criticized the Czar for this but, it must be remembered, at the time many Americans thought they were the ones who had gotten the worst of the deal. Before anyone knew of the gold and oil deposits there, it seemed that the U.S. had simply purchased a huge, frozen wilderness that was largely uninhabitable and devoid of prospects for development. In any event, Alexander II had sold the territory simply because of the continued tensions between Russia and the British Empire. The Russian presence in the region was extremely minimal and there was no way Russia could defend the territory. Alexander II feared, not unreasonably, that the British could easily move from Canada to seize Alaska and thus place themselves at the backdoor of the Russian Far East. It was far better to have Alaska in American hands as that would ensure the British never gained control of it and, at the time, the United States had a far friendlier relationship with Russia than Britain or France did.

The other act for which Czar Alexander II remains most famous is his emancipation of the serfs in 1861. This was a dramatic change for the Russian Empire but it was not so radical as many people think. A number of Russian monarchs, including his father Nicholas I, had wanted to end serfdom but never felt able to. Numerous conservative voices had, for some time previously, advocated abolishing serfdom on the orders of the Czar as a preferable alternative to having it end by means of a massive servile insurrection that might bring down the monarchy and destroy the Russian Empire entirely in the process. Liberals lauded Alexander II for this action but it stirred up considerable resentment on the part of the aristocracy and land owners. Nor was it a smooth transition, which is to be expected considering how deeply engrained serfdom was in Russia. The Czar took the ultimate step of freeing the serfs and insisted that they be given land to sustain themselves once they were free. Unfortunately, the landowners inflated the value of the land and the peasants had to go into considerable debt to the government to pay for it. Because of the way it was handled, Alexander II had to issue further reforms, dismiss a number of the ministers responsible for it and deal with a certain amount of unrest.

At home, Alexander II showed himself to be rather unlike his father but more akin to his more distant predecessors in his private life. In 1841 he had married Maria of Hesse-Darmstadt, the daughter of Hessian Grand Duke Ludwig II. It was a marriage willingly entered into by a loving couple rather than an arranged matter of state and the two initially had a very happy and successful wedded life. The two were certainly busy, having eight children before the death of the Czarina in 1880, however, long before that time the Czar began a series of affairs with a number of aristocratic ladies. Upon the death of his wife, the same year Alexander II married Katia Dolgorukaya, his latest mistress, by whom he had four more children. His infidelity was heartbreaking for his Hessian bride, who was a very sincere, good-natured lady, disliked by the more haughty ladies at court who often ridiculed her for being bothered by her husband’s affairs. Alexander II was known to be rather short-tempered and was often in poor health and not a few attributed this to his irregular private life.

On the world stage, the policy of Alexander II was to end the isolation the Russian Empire had been in since the end of the Crimean War, though to do so carefully. His greatest rival remained the British and while he was on friendlier terms with Prussia (being the son of a Prussian mother) the north German kingdom was then in no position to be of much help. During the American Civil War, some feared that the biggest and bloodiest conflict in the western hemisphere might draw the Old World into conflict as well. With the British and French empires being seen as sympathetic to the southern Confederacy, Russia had little choice but to foster good relations with the United States. Expansion in Asia was also underway at this time and there, again, the British were the primary opposition to Russia. 1861-62 saw the Russian Imperial Navy wintering in New York so that, in the event of war with Britain and France, the Russian fleet would be free to prey upon their ships in the Atlantic rather than being stuck in the ice blocked ports of the Russian coast. San Francisco, California also received a visit from the Russian navy.

The effort to foster better relations with the United States, it must be said, was not because of any political or ideological sympathy, despite what some historians have tried to portray as a friendship between President Lincoln and Czar Alexander II as two crusaders against slavery. At most, Russia wished to encourage the United States as a counter-weight against the British Empire, particularly at a time when Anglo-American relations were extremely poor due to the U.S. blockade of southern ports and the building of ships for the Confederate navy in England. It was also not as though the spread of the American Civil War to Europe was the only potential source of conflict. Russia was also at odds with the major European powers over turmoil in Poland.

Polish nationalists began orchestrating anti-Russian demonstrations in 1860 and some terrorist attacks, such as an outbreak of arson in St Petersburg, were blamed on Polish forces. Initially, Czar Alexander II responded in a conciliatory fashion by granting the Poles greater autonomy within the Russian Empire but this failed to satisfy the dissidents. They wanted nothing less than the restoration of complete Polish independence and this eventually escalated to outright rebellion in 1863 when Russian authorities tried to conscript the Polish leaders of this movement into the Imperial Army. When the rebellion spread to parts of Lithuania, Belorussia and Ukraine, Czar Alexander II abandoned his earlier effort at appeasement and reverted to brute force. The military was sent in to crush the rebellion, Polish officials were sacked and replaced by Russian officials and the teaching of the Russian language in Polish schools was made compulsory. Contact between Poland and the leadership of the Catholic Church in Rome was cut off and Ukrainian books were banned. Great Britain, France and the Austrian Empire were seen as being sympathetic to the Poles and thus antagonistic toward Russia and this caused a real concern that Russia could, again, be drawn into war.

Czar Alexander II hoped it would not come to that and set about trying to even the odds by getting one or more of the great powers to move away from the British and French and closer to Russia. The French Second Empire seemed the most likely candidate. Britain and Russia had too many conflicting interests, the Prussians were as yet too weak and a great deal of animosity still existed with Austria. In 1857 Czar Alexander II and Emperor Napoleon III met in Stuttgart and in the following years worked out a Franco-Russian agreement which stipulated that France would support a revision of the 1856 Treaty of Paris and that, in return, Russia would not support Austria in the clash between France and Austria in Italy everyone knew was coming. Unfortunately for Alexander II, this short-lived alliance proved to be a mistake. When war between France and Austria came, neither side emerged satisfied and the French resented the fact that Russia had not done more to help them, even though their agreement had promised only Russian neutrality. To make things worse, the Czar was alarmed by the upsurge of Italian nationalism the war caused, for which France was blamed, as this also inspired Polish nationalists to acts of anti-Russian resistance. When Napoleon III joined Britain and Austria in criticizing Russian actions in Poland, Alexander II regarded the agreement with France to be ended and focused on strengthening ties with their arch-enemy Prussia.

Russian expansion in Asia also prompted ill-will from the French as well as the British. Since the Crimean War settlement had effectively blocked in Russia from the west, expansion to the east, toward the Pacific seemed the only available option. Russia extracted treaties and territorial concessions from the Chinese, expanding Russian territory and leading to the establishment of Vladivostok in 1860. The British were becoming increasingly friendly with Japan, had extensive influence in China and the French, around this same time, were expanding in Southeast Asia and briefly became involved in Korea. Neither welcomed Russia as a competitor in East Asia and the tension this caused helped prompt the Czar to sell Alaska to the United States. Russian power also expanded in Central Asia, which alarmed the British, and the Caucasus which alarmed the Turks and Persians. By that time, however, Prussia was rising rapidly as a force to be reckoned with again, though this was potentially a double-edged sword for Russia. In the end, Czar Alexander II chose to shun the newly republican France for an alliance with the German and Austrian emperors though relations between Russia and Austria would never be very trusting or cordial.

The rise of the German Empire changed the situation in Europe and Russia and Britain, once bitter enemies, began to slowly drift more closely together. Aiding this was the rise of the Pan-Slav movement which opposed any friendship with Germany and Austria-Hungary, viewing the Austrians and Hungarians in particular as their greatest rivals for influence in the Balkans as Turkish power continued to decline and Slavic, Orthodox populations began to come ‘up for grabs’. A Serbian uprising against the Turks did finally spark another war between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1877, something that Alexander II had not wanted but likewise would not back down from either. By this time, his son and heir, Nicholas, had died and Alexander became noticeably more depressed and temperamental. His mood was not improved by the number of attacks against the Russian monarchy by revolutionaries, in spite of his many reforms and concessions. The war, this time with the Turks alone unsupported by Britain and France (who had been rather turned off by their former ally of the Crimean War after Turkish persecution of Christians in the aftermath), went quite well for Russia. The Russian armies joined with the Bulgarians in driving the Turks almost completely off of the European mainland.

Czar Alexander II obtained a favorable peace from the Turks but the war effectively ended the “Three Emperors League” as Austria objected to Bulgaria falling within the Russian sphere of influence and the Germans, under Bismarck, took the side of their Austrian brethren against the Russians so that many in Russia, particularly the Pan-Slav activists, felt robbed of the fruits of their victory. Russia would never be friendly with Germany and Austria-Hungary again and in the years to come would align with her former enemies of Britain and France, forming what would become the battle lines of the First World War. And, at the same time, Alexander II faced nothing but hardship on the home front. Attacks by revolutionary radicals included shootings and bombings and this prompted the Czar to take repressive measures, a change in attitude from his earlier efforts to encourage support for the throne through reforms and concessions.

The Czar also continued to suffer from numerous health problems and in 1880 the Czarina passed away. Only a few weeks later Alexander II married his latest mistress which prompted outrage from the Russian Orthodox Church and the ranks of his own family. In an effort to regain public support and calm instability, Alexander II began to shift again toward allowing greater freedom for his subjects. Unfortunately, it was just at this time that he came under attack by a gang of assassins who threw a bomb at his carriage. The vehicle was armored, so the Czar was unhurt but, in a rush of unthinking compassion, he left the carriage to attend to his wounded driver and the murderers immediately threw a second bomb at his feet which exploded, gruesomely and mortally wounding the “Czar Liberator”. He was taken to the Winter Palace and died on March 13, 1881, the throne passing to his son Czar Alexander III.

Throughout his reign, most epitomized by his emancipation of the serfs, Alexander II had endeavored to be a monarch of mildness and reason. Yet, his reforms angered the traditional elites while winning no support for the Crown from the liberals and certainly none from the revolutionaries. The lessons of his life were not lost on his successor Czar Alexander III. His father had extended a hand and had been brutally murdered for it. From that time on, a return to strict discipline and harsh repression would be the order of the day. On the world stage, the Russian Empire had expanded but, to the eyes of the Russians at least, had been betrayed by first Napoleon III and then by the Germans and Austrians. Alexander III would firmly plant himself in opposition to the Germans and Austrians, even if that meant an alliance with republican France, the ideological opposite of the Russian Empire at every level. So it was that the reign of Czar Alexander II, beginning with granting greater freedom, emancipation for the serfs and efforts at reconciliation, ended with the battle lines of World War One being formed and the assertion by his son and later grandson that reforms to win over liberals was a wasted effort and that only strength and stern measures would preserve the Russian Empire.


  1. Alexander didn't exactly emancipate serfs. He just passed them from aristocratic landowners to bureaucratic administrators. Obshchina were almost as bad as later Soviet collective farms... which why leftist in the west were praising him for "freeing" serfs. If Alexander did freed serfs in manner similar to British enclosures, they'd spit on him, even if Russia was better off. But he created foundations for future Soviet economy, so he's remembered as hero...

  2. Thanks for this great post about a fascinating Tsar! Would you consider doing a post one day about his uncle, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia ?

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