of Alexander II, Nikolayevitch
EMPEROR OF ALL RUSSIA
Eldest son of Emperor
Nicholas I, Alexander was born in Moscow on April 17, 1818, and came
to the throne on February 19, 1855, after the death of his father. He
was crowned in Moscow on August 26, 1856.
After his accession
to the throne, Alexander II implemented important reforms, notably the
abolition of serfdom, changes in national, military and municipal organization.
He rethought foreign policy: Russia now refrained from overseas expansion
and concentrated on strengthening its borders. In 1867, he sold Alaska
and the Aleutian Islands to the United States. His greatest foreign
policy achievement was the successful war of 1877-8 against the Ottoman
Empire, resulting in the liberation of Bulgaria and annulment of the
conditions of the Treaty of Paris of 1856, imposed after Russia's defeat
in the Crimean War.
In 1841, Alexander
II married Maria of Hessen-Darmstadt (Maria Alexandrovna). The marriage
produced seven children.
On March 1, 1881,
in St. Petersburg, he was mortally wounded by a bomb thrown by a student,
I. Grinevitskii, a member of the revolutionary organization "The
National Will.'' The Cathedral of the Resurrection on Blood was erected
on the site of the murder. Alexander II was buried in the Cathedral
of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.
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.
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 language. 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.
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. Following his wife's death in 1880, Alexander
formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki.
Together they had two sons and two daughters.
to the throne upon the death of his father in 1855.
The first year of
Alexander's reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the beginning
of his reign, Alexander expressed the famous statement "No dreams"
addressed for Poles, populating Congress Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania,
Livonia and Belorus. The result was January Uprising that were suppressed
after 1.5 years of fighting. Thousand Poles were executed, tens of thousands
were deported to Siberia.
The price for suppression
was Russian support for Prussian-united Germany. Twenty years later,
Germany became the major enemy of Russia on continent.
All teritories of
the former Poland-Lithuania were eluded from liberal polices introduced
by Alexander. The martial law in Lithuania, introduced in 1863 lasted
for 50 next years. Native languages, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belorussian
were completely banned from printing texts, Polish were banned both
oral and written from the all provinces except Congress Kingdom.
On the very day
on which this decree was signed—March 13, 1881—he fell 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 hand-made grenades and died a few hours afterwards. The assassination
was carried out by the radical revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya (People's
Will) which hoped to ignite a social revolution. The members Nikolai
Kibalchich, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Rysakov, Timofei Mikhailov, Andrei
Zhelyabov were arrested and sentenced to death. Gesya Gelfman was sent
to Siberia. The Tsar was killed by the Pole Ignacy Hryniewiecki (1856-1881),
who died during the attack. Hryniewiecki was a Pole from Lithuania (Bobrujsk,
now Babruysk, Belarus), where suppression of Poles and persecutions
were the harshest. It included complete ban on Polish langauge in public
places, schools and offices.
On the site where
he was wounded, the Cathedral of the Resurrection on Blood was erected.
Alexander, the eldest
son of Tsar Nicholas I, was born in Moscow on 17th April, 1818. Educated
by private tutors, he also had to endure rigorous military training
that permanently damaged his health.
In 1841 he married
Marie Alexandrovna, the daughter of the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt.
Alexander became Tsar of Russia on the death of his father in 1855.
At the time Russia was involved in the Crimean War and in 1856 signed
the Treaty of Paris that brought the conflict to an end.
The Crimean War
made Alexander realize that Russia was no longer a great military power.
His advisers argued that Russia's serf-based economy could no longer
compete with industrialized nations such as Britain and France.
Alexander now began
to consider the possibility of bringing an end to serfdom in Russia.
The nobility objected to this move but as Alexander told a group of
Moscow nobles: "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than
to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below.
In 1861 Alexander
issued his Emancipation Manifesto that proposed 17 legislative acts
that would free the serfs in Russia. Alexander announced that personal
serfdom would be abolished and all peasants would be able to buy land
from their landlords. The State would advance the the money to the landlords
and would recover it from the peasants in 49 annual sums known as redemption
Alexander also introduced
other reforms and in 1864 he allowed each district to set up a Zemstvo.
These were local councils with powers to provide roads, schools and
medical services. However, the right to elect members was restricted
to the wealthy.
Other reforms introduced
by Alexander included improved municipal government (1870) and universal
military training (1874). He also encouraged the expansion of industry
and the railway network.
did not satisfy liberals and radicals who wanted a parliamentary democracy
and the freedom of expression that was enjoyed in the United States
and most other European states. The reforms in agricultural also disappointed
the peasants. In some regions it took peasants nearly 20 years to obtain
their land. Many were forced to pay more than the land was worth and
others were given inadequate amounts for their needs.
In 1876 a group
of reformers established Land and Liberty. As it was illegal to criticize
the Russian government, the group had to hold its meetings in secret.
Influenced by the ideas of Mikhail Bakunin, the group published literature
demanding that Russia's land should be handed over to the peasants.
Some reformers favoured
a policy of terrorism to obtain reform and on 14th April, 1879, Alexander
Soloviev, a former schoolteacher, tried to kill Alexander. His attempt
failed and he was executed the following month. So also were sixteen
other men suspected of terrorism.
The government responded
to the assassination attempt by appointing six military governor-generals
that imposed a rigorous system of censorship on Russia. All radical
books were banned and known reformers were arrested and imprisoned.
In October, 1879,
the Land and Liberty split into two factions. The majority of members,
who favoured a policy of terrorism, established the People's Will. Soon
afterwards the group decided to assassinate Alexander. The following
month Andrei Zhelyabov and Sophia Perovskaya used nitroglycerine to
destroy the Tsar train. However, the terrorist miscalculated and it
destroyed another train instead. An attempt the blow up the Kamenny
Bridge in St. Petersburg as the Tsar was passing over it was also unsuccessful.
The next attempt
on Alexander's life involved a carpenter, Stefan Khalturin, who had
managed to find work in the Winter Palace. Allowed to sleep on the premises,
each day he brought packets of dynamite into his room and concealed
it in his bedding.
On 17th February,
1880, Khalturin constructed a mine in the basement of the building under
the dinning-room. The mine went off at half-past six at the time that
the People's Will had calculated Alexander would be having his dinner.
However, his main guest, Prince Alexander of Battenburg, had arrived
late and dinner was delayed and the dinning-room was empty. Alexander
was unharmed but sixty-seven people were killed or badly wounded by
The People's Will
contacted the Russian government and claimed they would call off the
terror campaign if the Russian people were granted a constitution that
provided free elections and an end to censorship. On 25th February,
1880, Alexander announced that he was considering granting the Russian
people a constitution. To show his good will a number of political prisoners
were released from prison. Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior,
was given the task of devising a constitution that would satisfy the
reformers but at the same time preserve the powers of the autocracy.
At the same time
the Russian Police Department established a special section that dealt
with internal security. This unit eventually became known as the Okhrana.
Under the control of Loris Melikof, the Minister of the Interior, undercover
agents began joining political organizations that were campaigning for
In January, 1881,
Loris Melikof presented his plans to Alexander. They included an expansion
of the powers of the Zemstvo. Under his plan, each zemstov would also
have the power to send delegates to a national assembly called the Gosudarstvenny
Soviet that would have the power to initiate legislation. Alexander
was concerned that the plan would give too much power to the national
assembly and appointed a committee to look at the scheme in more detail.
The People's Will
became increasingly angry at the failure of the Russian government to
announce details of the new constitution. They therefore began to make
plans for another assassination attempt. Those involved in the plot
included Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolai
Sablin, Ignatei Grinevitski, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and
In February, 1881,
the Okhrana discovered that their was a plot led by Andrei Zhelyabov
to kill Alexander. Zhelyabov was arrested but refused to provide any
information on the conspiracy. He confidently told the police that nothing
they could do would save the life of the Tsar.
On 1st March, 1881,
Alexander was travelling in a closed carriage, from Michaelovsky Palace
to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. An armed Cossack sat with the
coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind
them came a group of police officers in sledges.
All along the route
he was watched by members of the People's Will. On a street corner near
the Catherine Canal Sophia Perovskaya gave the signal to Nikolai Rysakov
and Timofei Mikhailov to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The
bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The
Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check
the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded
Cossacks another terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, threw his bomb. Alexander
was killed instantly and the explosion was so great that Grinevitski
also died from the bomb blast.
Of the other conspirators,
Nikolai Sablin committed suicide before he could be arrested and Gesia
Gelfman died in prison. Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai
Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and Timofei Mikhailov were hanged on 3rd
In February, 1881,
Melikoff reported that a new plot had been laid by the Revolutionary
Executive Committee, but its plan could not be discovered by any amount
of searching. Thereupon Alexander II decided that a sort of deliberative
assembly of delegates from the provinces should be called. Always under
the idea that he would share the fate of Louis XVI, he described this
gathering as an assembly of notables, like the one convoked by Louis
XVI before the National Assembly in 1789. The scheme had to be laid
before the Council of State, but then again he hesitated. It was only
on the morning of March 1 (13), 1881, after a final warning by Loris
Melikoff, that he ordered it to be brought before the council on the
following Thursday. This was on Sunday, and he was asked by Melikoff
not to go out to the parade that day, there being danger of an attempt
on his life. Nevertheless he went. He wanted to see the Grand Duchess
Catherine, and to carry her the welcome news. He is reported to have
told her, "I have determined to summon an assembly of notables."
However, this belated and half-hearted concession had not been made
public, and on his way back to the Winter Palace he was killed.
It is known how
it happened. A bomb was thrown under his iron-clad carriage to stop
it. Several Circassians of the escort were wounded. Rysakoff, who flung
the bomb, was arrested on the spot. Then, although the coachman of the
Tsar earnestly advised him not to get out, saying that he could drive
him still in the slightly damaged carriage, he insisted upon alighting.
He felt that his military dignity required him to see the wounded Circassians,
to condole with them as he had done with the wounded during the Turkish
war, when a mad storming of Plevna, doomed to end in a terrible disaster,
was made on the day of his fête. He approached Rysakoff and asked
him something; and as he passed close by another young man, Grinevetsky,
the latter threw a bomb between himself and Alexander II, so that both
of them should be killed. They both lived but a few hours.
II lay upon the snow, profusely bleeding, abandoned by every one of
his followers. All had disappeared. It was cadets, returning from the
parade, who lifted the suffering Tsar from the snow and put him in a
sledge, covering his shivering body with a cadet mantle and his bare
head with a cadet cap. And it was one of the terrorists, Emelianoff,
with a bomb wrapped in a paper under his arm, who, at the risk of being
arrested on the spot and hanged, rushed with the cadets to the help
of the wounded man. Human nature is full of those contrasts.
Thus ended the tragedy
of Alexander II's life. People could not understand how it was possible
that a Tsar who had done so much for Russia should have met his death
at the hands of revolutionists. To me, who had the chance of witnessing
the first reactionary steps of Alexander II, and his gradual deterioration,
who had caught a glimpse of his complex personality, -- that of a born
autocrat whose violence was but partially mitigated by education, of
a man possessed of military gallantry, but devoid of the courage of
the statesman, of a man of strong passions and weak will -- it seemed
that the tragedy developed with the unavoidable fatality of one of Shakespeare's
dramas. Its last act was already written for me on the day when I heard
him address us, the promoted officers, on June 13, 1862, immediately
after he had ordered the first executions in Poland.