Biography of Alexander II, Russia's Reformist Tsar

Tsar Alexander II at his desk. Photo circa 1875, Hudson Archive / Getty Images.

Alexander II (born Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov; April 29, 1818 – March 13, 1881) was a nineteenth-century Russian emperor. Under his rule, Russia moved towards reform, most notably in the abolition of serfdom. However, his assassination cut these efforts short.

Fast Facts: Alexander II

  • Full Name: Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov
  • Occupation: Emperor of Russia
  • Born: April 29, 1818 in Moscow, Russia
  • Died: March 13, 1881 in Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Key Accomplishments: Alexander II earned a reputation for reform and a willingness to bring Russia into the modern world. His greatest legacy was the freeing of Russian serfs in 1861.
  • Quote: "The vote, in the hands of an ignorant man, without either property or self respect, will be used to the damage of the people at large; for the rich man, without honor or any kind of patriotism, will purchase it, and with it swamp the rights of a free people.”

Early Life

Alexander was born in Moscow in 1818 as the first son and heir of Tsar Nicholas I and his wife Charlotte, a Prussian princess. His parents’ marriage was, luckily (and somewhat unusually) for a purely political union, a happy one, and Alexander had six siblings who survived childhood. From birth, Alexander was given the title of Tsesarevich, which was traditionally given to the heir to the Russian throne. (The similar-sounding title tsarevich applied to any sons of a tsar, including non-Russians, and ceased being used by Romanov rulers in 1797).

The upbringing and early education of Alexander was not one that seemed conducive to create a great reformer. Indeed, the opposite, if anything, was true. At the time, the court and political atmosphere was intensely conservative under his father’s authoritarian rule. Dissent from any corner, regardless of rank, was severely punishable. Even Alexander, who was the darling of his family and of all Russia, would have had to be careful.

Nicholas, however, was nothing if not practical in the upbringing of his successor. He had suffered from a dull, frustrating education as a “spare” to the throne (his immediate predecessor was not his father, but rather his brother Alexander I) that had left him without any desire to take up the title. He was determined to not let his son suffer the same fate and provided him with tutors that included reformer Mikhail Speransky and romantic poet Vasily Zhukovsky, plus a military instructor, General Karl Merder. This combination led to Alexander being well-prepared and more liberal than his father. At the age of sixteen, Nicholas created a ceremony in which Alexander formally swore allegiance to the autocracy as the successor.

Marriage and Early Reign

While on tour in Western Europe in 1839, Alexander was in search of a royal wife. His parents preferred Princess Alexandrine of Baden and arranged for the twenty-one-year-old tsesarevich to meet her. The meeting was unimpressive, and Alexander declined to pursue the match. He and his entourage made an unplanned stop at the court of the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ludwig II, where he met and became smitten with the duke’s daughter, Marie. Despite some early objections from his mother and a long engagement because of Marie’s youth (she was only fourteen when they met), Alexander and Marie married on April 28, 1841.

Although the protocols of court life did not appeal to Marie, the marriage was a happy one, and Alexander leaned on Marie for support and advice. Their first child, the Grand Duchess Alexandra, was born in August 1842, but died of meningitis at the age of six. In September 1843, the couple had their son and Alexander’s heir, Nicholas, followed in 1845 by Alexander (the future Tsar Alexander III), Vladimir in 1847, and Alexei in 1850. Even after Alexander took mistresses, their relationship remained close.

Nicholas I died of pneumonia in 1855, and Alexander II succeeded to the throne at the age of 37. His early reign was dominated by the fallout from the Crimean War and cleaning up overwhelming corruption at home. Thanks to his education and personal leanings, he began pushing forward a more reformist, liberal set of policies than the iron-fisted authoritarianism of his predecessors.

Reformer and Liberator

Alexander’s signature reform was the liberation of the serfs, which he began working towards almost immediately after coming to the throne. In 1858, he toured the country to encourage the nobility – who were reluctant to give up their reliance on serfs – to back the reform. The Emancipation Reform of 1861 formally abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire, giving 22 million serfs the rights of full citizens.

His reforms were not limited to this by any means. Alexander ordered the reform of the Russian military, from enforcing conscription for all social classes (not just the peasantry) to improving officer education to creating districts for more efficient administration. An elaborate and detailed bureaucracy worked to reform the judicial system and make the system simpler and more transparent. At the same time, his government created local districts that took on many duties of self-governance.

Despite his zeal for reform, Alexander was no democratic ruler. The Moscow Assembly proposed a constitution, and in response, the tsar dissolved the assembly. He fervently believed that diluting the power of the autocracy with representatives of the people would destroy the populace’s quasi-religious view of the tsar as a divinely-ordained, unquestioned ruler. When separatist movements, particularly in Poland and Lithuania, threatened to erupt, he suppressed them harshly, and later in his reign, he began to crack down on liberal teachings at universities. However, he supported efforts in Finland to increase its autonomy. An assassination attempt in April 1866 may have contributed to Alexander’s shift away from his earlier liberal reforms.

Assassination and Legacy

Alexander was the target of several assassination attempts, including the one in 1866. In April 1879, a would-be assassin named Alexander Soloviev shot at the tsar as he walked; the shooter missed and was sentenced to death. Later that year, other revolutionaries attempted a more elaborate plot, orchestrating a railway explosion – but their information was incorrect and they missed the tsar’s train. In February 1880, the tsar’s enemies came closer than they ever had before to achieving their goal when Stephan Khalturin, from the same radical group that bombed the train, managed to detonate a device in the Winter Palace itself, killing and wounding dozens and causing damage to the palace, but the imperial family was awaiting a late arrival and was not in the dining room.

On March 13, 1881, Alexander went, as was his custom, to a military roll call. He rode in a bulletproof carriage gifted to him by Napoleon III, which saved his life during the first attempt: a bomb thrown under the carriage as it passed by. Guards attempted to evacuate Alexander quickly. Another conspirator, a radical revolutionary named Ignacy Hryniewiecki, got close enough to throw a bomb directly at the fleeing emperor’s feet. The bomb horrifically wounded Alexander, as well as others in the vicinity. The dying tsar was brought to the Winter Palace, where he was given his last rites and died minutes later.

Alexander left behind a legacy of slow but steady reform and began the modernization of Russia – but his death stopped what would have been one of the biggest reforms: a set of planned changes that Alexander had approved and spoke of as a step towards a true constitution – something Romanov rulers had always resisted. The announcement was set to be made around March 15, 1881. But Alexander’s successor chose instead to retaliate for the assassination with severe setbacks to civil liberties, including arrests of dissenters and anti-Semitic pogroms that would last for the rest of the Romanov era.

Sources

  • Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613 – 1918. London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017.
  • Mosse, W.E. “Alexander II: Emperor of Russia.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-II-emperor-of-Russia
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. Simon & Schuster, 2005.