Landed proprietor

Alexander II of Russia

Alexander (Aleksandr) II Nikolaevich (Александр II Николаевич) (Moscow, 29 April 1818 – 13 March 1881 in St. Petersburg) was the Emperor of the Russian Empire from 3 March 1855 until his assassination in 1881. He was also the Grand Duke of Finland and King of Poland until 1867 when it was annexed into the Russian Empire.

Early life

Born in 1818, he was the eldest son of Nicholas I and Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. His early life gave little indication of his ultimate potential; until the time of his accession in 1855, few imagined that he would be known to posterity as a leader able to implement the most challenging reforms undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great.

In the period of over thirty-six years during which he was heir apparent, the atmosphere of St Petersburg was unfavourable to the development of any intellectual or political innovation. 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 offence. This was also regarded as one of the reasons which led to his assassination.

Under supervision of the liberal poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexander received the education commonly given to young Russians of good family at that time: a smattering of a great many subjects, and exposure to the chief modern European languages. He took little personal interest in military affairs to the disappointment of his father, who was passionate about the military. Alexander gave evidence of a kind disposition and a warmheartedness which were considered out of place in one destined to become a military autocrat.

His reign

Alexander II succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1855. The first year of his reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean War, and after the fall of Sevastopol to negotiations for peace, led by his trusted counselor, Prince Gorchakov. Then he began a period of radical reforms, encouraged by public opinion but carried out with autocratic power. 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 he would play in bringing to fruition the reform aspirations of the educated classes.

However, the growth of a revolutionary movement to the "left" of the educated classes led to an abrupt end to Alexander's changes when he was assassinated by a bomb in 1881. It is interesting to note that after Alexander became tsar in 1855, he maintained a generally liberal course at the helm while providing a target for numerous assassination attempts (1866, 1873, 1880).

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. 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. 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 ukase. 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 labourers 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 became one of the last groups of peasants in Europe to shake off serfdom.

The architects of the emancipation manifesto were Alexander's brother Konstantin, Yakov Rostovtsev, and Nikolay Milyutin. On 3 March 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published.

Other reforms

Other reforms followed: army and navy re-organization (1874); a new judicial administration based on the French model (1864); a new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure; an elaborate scheme of local self-government (Zemstvo) for the rural districts (1864) and the large towns (1870), 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. Alexander II would be the second monarch (after King Louis I of Portugal) to abolish capital punishment, a penalty which is still legal (although not practised) in Russia.

However, the workers wanted better working conditions; national minorities wanted freedom. When radicals began to resort to the formation of secret societies and to revolutionary agitation, Alexander II 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 instituted a ukase for creating special commissions, composed of high officials and private personages who should prepare reforms in various branches of the administration.

Marriages and children

During his bachelor days, Alexander made a state visit to England in 1838. Just a year older than the young Queen Victoria, Alexander took a liking to his distant cousin. The fondness however, was short-lived. While Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert in February 1840, Alexander became a husband the next year. On 16 April 1841 he married Princess Marie of Hesse in St Petersburg, thereafter known as Maria Alexandrovna. The Tsarevitch claimed to be deeply in love with the young Princess and vowed to marry no one else. Marie was the legal daughter of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Wilhelmina of Baden, although there was a question of whether the Grand Duke or her mother's lover, Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, was her biological father. Alexander was aware of the question of her paternity. The marriage produced six sons and two daughters:

Name Birth Death Notes
Grand Duchess Alexandra Alexandrovna 30 August 1842 10 July 1849 nicknamed Lina, died of infant meningitis in St. Petersburg at the age of six
Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich 20 September 1843 24 April 1865 engaged to Dagmar of Denmark
Tsar Alexander III 10 March 1845 1 November 1894 married 1866, Dagmar of Denmark (Maria Feodorovna); had issue
Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich 22 April 1847 17 February 1909 married 1874, Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (Maria Pavlovna); had issue
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich 14 January 1850 14 November 1908 married 1867/1870, Alexandra Vasilievna Zhukovskaya; had issue
Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna 17 October 1853 20 October 1920 married 1874, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha; had issue
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich 29 April 1857 4 February 1905 married 1884, Elisabeth of Hesse (Elizabeth Feodorovna);  
Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich 3 October 1860 24 January 1919 married 1889, Alexandra of Greece and Denmark (Alexandra Georgievna); had issue - second marriage 1902, Olga Karnovich; had issue

Alexander had many mistresses during his marriage and fathered 7 known illegitimate children. These included Antoinette Bayer (20 June 1856-24 January 1948) with his mistress Wilhelmine Bayer; Michael-Bogdan Oginski (10 October 1848-25 March 1909) with mistress Countess Olga Kalinovskya (1818-1854); and Joseph Raboxicz.

On 6 July 1880, less than a month after Tsarina Maria's death on 8 June, Alexander formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgorukov, with whom he already had four children.

  • George Alexandrovich Romanov Yurievsky (12 May 1872-13 September 1913). Married Countess Alexandra Zarnekau and had issue. They later divorced.
  • Olga Alexandrovna Romanov Yurievsky (7 November 1874-10 August 1925). Married Count George von Merenberg.
  • Boris Alexandrovich Yurievsky (23 February 1876 - 11 April 1876).
  • Catherine Alexandrovna Romanov Yurievsky (9 September 1878-22 December 1959). Married first Prince Alexander V. Bariatinsky and second Prince Serge Obolensky, whom she later divorced.

Suppression of national movements

At the beginning of his reign, Alexander expressed the famous statement "No dreams" addressed for Poles, populating Congress Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia and Belarus. The result was the January Uprising of 1863-1864 that was suppressed after eighteen months of fighting. Thousands of 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 the continent.

All territories of the former Poland-Lithuania were excluded from liberal policies introduced by Alexander. The martial law in Lithuania, introduced in 1863, lasted for the next 50 years. Native languages, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were completely banned from printed texts, see a , e.g., Ems Ukase. The Polish language was banned in both oral and written form from all provinces except Congress Kingdom, where it was allowed in private conversations only.

Rewarding loyalty and encouraging Finnish nationalism

In 1863 Alexander II re-established the Diet of Finland and initiated several reforms increasing Finland's autonomy from Russia including establishment of own currency, the Markka. Liberation of enterprise led to increased foreign investment and industrial development. Finally, the elevation of Finnish from a language of the common people to a national language equal to Swedish opened opportunities for a larger proportion of the society. Alexander II is still regarded as "The Good Tsar" in Finland.

Alexander's attitude towards Finland could be seen as genuine belief that reforms were easier to test in a small, homogeneous country than the whole of Russia. The benevolent treatment of Finland may also be seen as a reward for the loyalty of its relatively western oriented population during the Crimean war and during the Polish uprising. Encouraging Finnish nationalism and language can also be seen as an attempt to weaken the strong ties with Sweden.

Assassination attempts

In 1866 there was an attempt on his life in Petersburg by Dmitry Karakozov. To commemorate his narrow escape from death (which he referred to only as "the event of April 4, 1866"), a number of churches and chapels were built in many Russian cities.

On the morning of 20 April 1879, Alexander II was briskly walking towards the Square of the Guards Staff and faced Alexander Soloviev, a 33 year-old former student. Having seen a menacing revolver in his hands, the Tsar fled. Soloviev fired five times but missed;and he was sentenced to death and hanged on 28 May.

The student acted on his own, but other revolutionaries were keen to murder Alexander. In December 1879, the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), a radical revolutionary group which hoped to ignite a social revolution, organised an explosion on the railway from Livadia to Moscow, but they missed the Tsar's train. On the evening of 5 February 1880 the same revolutionaries set off a charge under the dining room of the Winter Palace, right in the resting room of the guards a story below. Being late for supper, the Tsar was unharmed, although 67 other people were killed or wounded. The dining room floor was also heavily damaged.


After the last assassination attempt, Count Loris-Melikov was appointed the head of the Supreme Executive Commission and given extraordinary powers to fight the revolutionaries. Loris-Melikov's proposals called for some form of parliamentary body, and the Emperor seemed to agree; these plans were never realized as on 13 March (1 March Old Style Date), 1881 Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot.

As he had done every Sunday for a score of years, the tsar went to the Manege to review the Life Guards of the Reserve Infantry and the Life Guards of the Sapper Battalion regiments. He travelled both to and from the Menege in a closed carriage accompanied by six Cossacks with a seventh sitting on the coachman's left. The tsar's carriage was followed by two sleighs carrying, among others, the chief of police and the chief of the tsar's guards. The route, as always, was via the Catherine Canal and over the Pevchesky Bridge.

The street was flanked by narrow sidewalks on both the right and left side. A short young man wearing a heavy black overcoat edged towards the imperial carriage making its way down the street. He was carrying a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief. The youth was Nikolai Rysakov,

"After a moment's hesitation I threw the bomb. I sent it under the horses' hooves in the supposition that it would blow up under the carriage...The explosion knocked me into the fence.

The explosion, while killing one of the Cossacks and seriously wounding the driver and people on the sidewalk, several critically, had only damaged the carriage. It was bulletproof, a gift from Napoleon III of France. The tsar emerged shaken but unhurt. Rysakov was captured almost immediately. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky heard Rysakov shout out to someone in the gathering crowd. Realizing there was another (if not more than one) bomber near by he urged the tsar to leave the area at once. Alexander agreed to do so but only after he had been shown the site of the explosion. Completely surrounded by the guards and the Cossacks, the tsar made his way over to the hole in the street. It was then that a young man, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, standing by the canal fence, raised up both arms and threw something at the tsar's feet. Dvorzhitsky was later to write:

"I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground. Suddenly, amid the smoke and snowy fog, I heard His Majesty's weak voice cry, 'Help!' Gathering what strength I had, I jumped up and rushed to the tsar. His Majesty was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning on his right arm. Thinking he was merely wounded heavily, I tried to lift him but the tsar's legs were shattered, and the blood poured out of them. Twenty people, with wounds of varying degree, lay on the sidewalk and on the street. Some managed to stand, others to crawl, still others tried to get out from beneath bodies that had fallen on them. Through the snow, debris, and blood you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabers, and bloody chunks of human flesh.

Later it was learned there was a third bomber in the crowd. Ivan Emelyanov stood ready, clutching a briefcase containing a bomb that would be used if the other two bombs, and bombers, failed.

Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace, up the marble staircase, a trail of blood in his wake, and in to his study where, twenty years before almost to the date, he had signed the Emancipation Edict freeing the serfs. Alexander with both legs destroyed, was bleeding to death. Members of the Romanov family came rushing to the scene. One of them was the quiet, sensitive thirteen year old boy named Nicky, elder son of the heir-apparent Alexander; the boy would grow up to be tsar in his own right, Nicholas II of Russia.

The dying tsar was given Communion and Extreme Unction. There was nothing to do now but wait. When asked how long it would be, the attending physician Dr. S.P. Borkin replied, "Up to fifteen minutes At 3:30 that day the standard of Alexander II was lowered for the last time.

The assassination also caused a great setback for the reform movement. One of Alexander II's last ideas was to draft up plans for an elected parliament, or Duma, which were completed the day before he died but not yet released to the Russian people. The first action Alexander III took after his coronation was to tear up those plans. A Duma would not come into fruition until 1905, by Alexander II's grandson, Nicholas II, who commissioned the Duma following heavy pressure on the monarchy by the Russian Revolution of 1905.

A second consequence of the assassination was anti-Jewish pogroms and legislation. Despite the fact only one Jew was involved in the assassination conspiracy, over 200 Jews who had nothing to do with the murder of Alexander II were beaten to death in these pogroms.

A third consequence of the assassination was that suppression of civil liberties in Russia and police brutality burst back with a full force after experiencing some restraint under the reign of Alexander II. Alexander II's murder and subsequent death was witnessed firsthand by his son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, both future Tsars, who vowed not to have the same fate befall them. Both used the Okhrana to arrest protestors and uproot suspected rebel groups, creating further suppression of personal freedom for the Russian people.


See also



Further reading

  • Moss, Walter G., Alexander II and His Times: A Narrative History of Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. London: Anthem Press, 2002 (available online)
  • Radzinsky, Edvard, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. New York: The Free Press, 2005

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