Perhaps an account from the memoirs of the artist Alexander Benois best describes an impression of Alexander III:
After a performance of the ballet 'Tsar Kandavl' at the Mariinsky Theatre, I first caught sight of the Emperor. I was struck by the size of the man, and although cumbersome and heavy, he was still a mighty figure. There was indeed something of the muzhik [Russian peasant] about him. The look of his bright eyes made quite an impression on me. As he passed where I was standing, he raised his head for a second, and to this day I can remember what I felt as our eyes met. It was a look as cold as steel, in which there was something threatening, even frightening, and it struck me like a blow. The Tsar's gaze! The look of a man who stood above all others, but who carried a monstrous burden and who every minute had to fear for his life and the lives of those closest to him. In later years I came into contact with the Emperor on several occasions, and I felt not the slightest bit timid. In more ordinary cases Tsar Alexander III could be at once kind, simple, and even almost... homely.
On his deathbed, Alexander's elder brother Nicholas is said to have expressed the wish that his affianced bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, should marry his successor. This wish was swiftly realized, when on 9 November, 1866, Alexander wed the princess of Denmark. The union proved a most happy one and remained unclouded to the end. Unlike that of his parents, there was no adultery in the marriage. During those years when he was heir-apparent—1865 to 1881—Alexander did not play a prominent part in public affairs, but he allowed it to become known that he had certain ideas of his own which did not coincide with the principles of the existing government.
The antagonism first appeared publicly during the Franco-Prussian War, when the Tsar supported the cabinet of Berlin and the tsarevich did not conceal his sympathies from the French. It reappeared in an intermittent fashion during the years 1875–1879, when the Eastern question produced so much excitement in all ranks of Russian society. At first the tsarevich was more Slavophile than the government, but his phlegmatic nature preserved him from many of the exaggerations indulged in by others, and any of the prevalent popular illusions he may have imbibed were soon dispelled by personal observation in Bulgaria, where he commanded the left wing of the invading army.
Never consulted on political questions, he confined himself to his military duties and fulfilled them in a conscientious and unobtrusive manner. After many mistakes and disappointments, the army reached Constantinople and the Treaty of San Stefano was signed, but much that had been obtained by that important document had to be sacrificed at the Congress of Berlin. Prince Bismarck failed to do what was confidently expected of him by the Russian Tsar.
In return for the Russian support, which had enabled him to create the German Empire, it was thought that he would help Russia to solve the Eastern question in accordance with her own interests, but to the surprise and indignation of the cabinet of Saint Petersburg he confined himself to acting the part of "honest broker" at the congress, and shortly afterwards he ostentatiously contracted an alliance with Austria for the express purpose of counteracting Russian designs in Eastern Europe. The tsarevich could point to these results as confirming the views he had expressed during the Franco-Prussian War, and he drew from them the practical conclusion that for Russia the best thing to do was to recover as quickly as possible from her temporary exhaustion and to prepare for future contingencies by a radical scheme of military and naval reorganization. In accordance with this conviction, he suggested that certain reforms should be introduced.
In the last years of his reign, Alexander II had been much exercised by the spread of Nihilist doctrines and the increasing number of anarchist conspiracies, and for some time he had hesitated between strengthening the hands of the executive and making concessions to the widespread political aspirations of the educated classes. Finally he decided in favour of the latter course, and on the very day of his death he signed an ukaz, creating a number of consultative commissions which might have been easily transformed into an assembly of notables.
Following advice of his political mentor Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Alexander III determined to adopt the opposite policy. He at once canceled the ukaz before it was published, and in the manifesto announcing his accession to the throne he let it be very clearly understood that he had no intention of limiting or weakening the autocratic power which he had inherited from his ancestors. Nor did he afterwards show any inclination to change his mind.
All the internal reforms which he initiated were intended to correct what he considered as the too liberal tendencies of the previous reign, so that he left behind him the reputation of a sovereign of the retrograde type. In his opinion Russia was to be saved from anarchical disorders and revolutionary agitation, not by the parliamentary institutions and so-called liberalism of western Europe, but by the three principles which the elder generation of the Slavophils systematically recommended—nationality, Eastern Orthodoxy and autocracy. His political ideal was a nation containing only one nationality, one language, one religion and one form of administration; and he did his utmost to prepare for the realization of this ideal by imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on his German, Polish and other non-Russian subjects (with the exception of the Finns), by fostering Eastern Orthodoxy at the expense of other confessions, by persecuting the Jews and by destroying the remnants of German, Polish and Swedish institutions in the outlying provinces. These policies were implemented by "May Laws" that banned Jews from rural areas and shtetls even within the Pale of Settlement.
In the other provinces he sought to counteract what he considered the excessive liberalism of his father's reign. For this purpose he removed what little power had by zemstvo, an elective local administration resembling the county and parish councils in England, had and placed the autonomous administration of the peasant communes under the supervision of landed proprietors appointed by the government. These came to be known as land captains, who were much feared and resented amongst the peasant communities throughout Russia. At the same time he sought to strengthen and centralize the Imperial administration, and to bring it more under his personal control.
In foreign affairs he was emphatically a man of peace, but not at all a partisan of the doctrine of peace at any price, and he followed the principle that the best means of averting war is to be well prepared for it. Though indignant at the conduct of Prince Bismarck towards Russia, he avoided an open rupture with Germany, and even revived for a time the Three Emperors' Alliance.
It was only in the last years of his reign, when Mikhail Katkov had acquired a certain influence over him, that he adopted a more hostile attitude towards the cabinet of Berlin, and even then he confined himself to keeping a large quantity of troops near the German frontier, and establishing cordial relations with France. With regard to Bulgaria he exercised similar self-control. The efforts of Prince Alexander and afterwards of Stamboloff to destroy Russian influence in the principality excited his indignation, but he persistently vetoed all proposals to intervene by force of arms.
In 1887, once again the Peoples Will planned the murder of Tsar Alexander III. Among the conspirators captured were one Aleksandr Ulyanov. Ulyanov was sentenced to death and hanged on May 5 1887. Alexander Ulyanov was the brother of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who would later take the pseudonym V.I. Lenin.
In Central Asian affairs he followed the traditional policy of gradually extending Russian domination without provoking a conflict with the United Kingdom, and he never allowed the bellicose partisans of a forward policy to get out of hand. As a whole his reign cannot be regarded as one of the eventful periods of Russian history; but it must be admitted that under his hard, unsympathetic rule the country made considerable progress. He died of nephritis at the Livadia Palace on 1 November 1894 and was buried at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. Alexander III was succeeded by his eldest son Nicholas II of Russia.
Emperor Alexander and his Danish-born wife regularly spent their summers in their Langinkoski manor near Kotka on the Finnish coast, where their children were immersed in a Scandinavian lifestyle of relative modesty.
Alexander III had six children of his marriage with Princess Dagmar of Denmark, also known as Marie Feodorovna.
(NB. all dates prior to 1918 are in Old Style Calendar)
|Tsar Nicholas II||May 6 1868||July 17 1918||married 1894, Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine; had issue|
|Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich||June 7 1869||May 2 1870||died of meningitis|
|Grand Duke George Alexandrovich||May 6 1871||August 9 1899||died of tuberculosis; no issue|
|Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna||April 6 1875||April 20 1960||married 1894, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich Romanov; had issue|
|Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich||November 22 1878||c.June 12 1918||married 1912, Natalya Sergeyevna Wulffert; had issue|
|Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna||June 13 1882||24 November 1960||married Peter Friedrich Georg, Duke of Oldenburg; had issue|