Alexander II (Russian: Алекса́ндр II Никола́евич, tr. Aleksandr II Nikolayevich, IPA: [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ftɐˈroj nʲɪkɐˈlajɪvʲɪtɕ]; 29 April 1818 – 13 March 1881) was the Emperor of Russia from 2 March 1855 until his assassination on 13 March 1881. He was also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland.
Alexander's most significant reform as emperor was emancipation of Russia's serfs in 1861, for which he is known as Alexander the Liberator (Russian: Алекса́ндр Освободи́тель, tr. Aleksandr Osvoboditel, IPA: [ɐlʲɪˈksandr ɐsvəbɐˈdʲitʲɪlʲ]). The tsar was responsible for other reforms, including reorganizing the judicial system, setting up elected local judges, abolishing corporal punishment, promoting local self-government through the zemstvo system, imposing universal military service, ending some privileges of the nobility, and promoting university education.
In foreign policy, Alexander sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, fearing the remote colony would fall into British hands if there were another war. He sought peace, moved away from bellicose France when Napoleon III fell in 1871, and in 1872 joined with Germany and Austria in the League of the Three Emperors that stabilized the European situation. Despite his otherwise pacifist foreign policy, he fought a brief war with the Ottoman Empire in 1877–78, pursued further expansion into Siberia and the Caucasus, and conquered Turkestan. Although disappointed by the results of the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Alexander abided by that agreement. Among his greatest domestic challenges was an uprising in Poland in 1863, to which he responded by stripping that land of its separate constitution and incorporating it directly into Russia. Alexander was proposing additional parliamentary reforms to counter the rise of nascent revolutionary and anarchistic movements when he was assassinated in 1881.
Born in Moscow, Alexander Nikolaevich was the eldest son of Nicholas I of Russia and of Charlotte of Prussia (daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and of Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz). His early life gave little indication of his ultimate potential; until the time of his accession in 1855, aged 37, few[quantify] imagined that posterity would know him for implementing the most challenging reforms undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great.
In the period of his life as heir apparent (1825 to 1855), the intellectual atmosphere of Saint Petersburg did not favour any kind of change: freedom of thought and all forms of private initiative were suppressed vigorously by the order of his father. Personal and official censorship was rife; criticism of the authorities was regarded as a serious offence.
The education of the Tsesarevich as future emperor took place under the supervision of the liberal romantic poet and gifted translator Vasily Zhukovsky, grasping a smattering of a great many subjects and becoming familiar with the chief modern European languages. Alexander's alleged lack of interest in military affairs (as detected by later historians) resulted from his reaction to the effects of the unsavoury Crimean War of 1853-1856 on his own family and on the whole country. Unusually for the time, the young Alexander was taken on a six-month tour of Russia (1837), visiting 20 provinces in the country. He also visited many prominent Western European countries in 1838 and 1839. As Tsesarevich, Alexander became the first Romanov heir to visit Siberia (1837).
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 counsellor Prince Alexander Gorchakov. The country had been exhausted and humiliated by the war. Bribe-taking, theft and corruption were everywhere. Encouraged by public opinion he began a period of radical reforms, including an attempt to not depend on a landed aristocracy controlling the poor, a move to developing Russia's natural resources and to reform all branches of the administration. In 1867 he sold Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million (equivalent to roughly $200 million in current dollars) after recognising the great difficulty of defending it against the United Kingdom or the former British colony of Canada.
After Alexander became emperor in 1855, he maintained a generally liberal course. Despite this, he was a target for numerous assassination attempts (1866, 1879, 1880). On 13 March [O.S. 1 March] 1881, members of the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) party killed him with a bomb. The Emperor had earlier in the day signed the Loris-Melikov constitution which would have created two legislative commissions made up of indirectly elected representatives, had it not been repealed by his reactionary successor Alexander III.
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.
The existence of serfdom was tackled boldly, 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 had been followed by one even 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 (serfdom was rare in other parts), 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 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 to choose between the different measures recommended to him and decide if the serfs would become agricultural laborers dependent economically and administratively on the landlords or if the serfs would 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, six years after his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published.
In response to the overwhelming defeat (1856) suffered by Russia in the Crimean War and to attempt to keep pace with military advances in other European countries, Alexander II appointed Dmitry Milyutin to carry out significant reforms in the Russian armed forces. The changes included universal military conscription, introduced for all social classes on 1 January 1874. Prior to this new regulation, as of 1861, conscription was compulsorily enforced only for the peasantry. Conscription had, prior to this reform, been 25 years for serfs that were drafted by their landowners, which was widely considered to be a life sentence. Other military reforms included extending the reserve forces and the military district system, which split the Russian states into 15 military districts, a system still in use over a hundred years later. The building of strategic railways and an emphasis on the military education of the officer corps comprised further reforms. Corporal punishment in the military and branding of soldiers as punishment were banned. The bulk of important military reforms were enacted as a result of the poor showing in the Crimean War.
A new judicial administration (1864), based on the French model, introduced security of tenure. A new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure also came into operation. Reorganisation of the judiciary occurred, to include trial in open court, with judges appointed for life, a jury system and the creation of justices of the peace to deal with minor offences at local level.
Alexander's bureaucracy instituted 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.
In 1856, at the beginning of his reign, Alexander had made a memorable speech to the deputies of the Polish nobility who inhabited Congress Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia and Belarus, in which he admonished, "Gentlemen, let us have no dreams!" The result was the January Uprising of 1863–1864 that was suppressed after eighteen months of fighting. Hundreds of Poles were executed, and thousands were deported to Siberia. The price for suppression was Russian support for the unification of Germany. Years later, Germany and Russia became enemies.
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 40 years. Native languages, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were completely banned from printed texts, the Ems Ukase being an example. The Polish language was banned in both oral and written form from all provinces except Congress Poland, where it was allowed in private conversations only.
In 1863, Alexander II re-convened the Diet of Finland and initiated several reforms increasing Finland's autonomy within the Russian Empire, including establishment of its own currency, the markka. Liberation of business led to increased foreign investment and industrial development. Finland also got its first railways, separately established under Finnish administration.
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.
These reforms could be seen as results of a genuine belief that reforms were easier to test in an underpopulated, homogeneous country, than in the whole of Russia. They 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 dilute ties with Sweden.
It was during Alexander II's rule that the Caucasian War (1817–1864) reached its climax. Just before the conclusion of the war with a victory on Russia's side, the Russian Army, under the emperor's order, sought to eliminate the Circassian "mountaineers" in what would be often referred to as "cleansing" in several historic dialogues.
In April 1876 the Bulgarian population on the Balkans rebelled against Ottoman rule. The April Uprising was suppressed, causing a general outcry throughout Europe. Some of the most prominent intellectuals and politicians on the Continent, most notably Victor Hugo and William Gladstone, sought to raise awareness about the atrocities that the Turks imposed on the Bulgarian population. To solve this new crisis in the "Eastern question" a special conference was convened in Constantinople at the end of the year. The participants in the Conference failed to reach a final agreement. After the failure of the Constantinople Conference, at the beginning of 1877 Emperor Alexander II started diplomatic preparations with the other Great Powers to secure their neutrality in case there was a war between Russia and the Ottomans. Alexander II considered such agreements paramount in avoiding the possibility of placing his country in a second disaster, similar to the Crimean War.
The Russian Emperor was successful in his diplomatic endeavours. Having secured agreement to non-involvement by the other Great Powers, on 17 April 1877 Russia declared war upon the Ottoman Empire. The Russians were successful against the Turks and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 ended with the signing of the preliminary peace Treaty of San Stefano on 19 February (3 March N.S.) 1878. The treaty and the subsequent Congress of Berlin secured the emergence of an independent Bulgarian state for the first time since 1396, and the tsar's nephew, Prince Alexander of Battenberg, was elected as the Bulgarians' first ruler. For his social reforms in Russia and his role in the liberation of Bulgaria, Alexander II became known in Bulgaria as the "Tsar-Liberator of Russians and Bulgarians". A monument to Alexander II was erected in 1907 in Sofia in the "National Assembly" square, opposite to the Parliament building. The monument underwent a complete reconstruction in 2012, funded by the Sofia Municipality and some Russian foundations. The inscription on the monument reads in Old-Bulgarian style: "To the Tsar-Liberator from grateful Bulgaria". There is a museum dedicated to Alexander in the Bulgarian city of Pleven.
In April 1866, there was an attempt on the emperor's life in St. Petersburg by Dmitry Karakozov. To commemorate his narrow escape from death (which he himself referred to only as "the event of 4 April 1866"), a number of churches and chapels were built in many Russian cities. Viktor Hartmann, a Russian architect, even sketched a design of a monumental gate (which was never built) to commemorate the event. Modest Mussorgsky later wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition; the last movement of which, "The Great Gate of Kiev", is based on Hartmann's sketches.
During the 1867 World Fair Polish immigrant Antoni Berezowski attacked the carriage with Alexander, his two sons and Napoleon III. His self-modified, double-barreled pistol misfired and only a horse of an escorting cavalryman was hit.
On the morning of 20 April 1879, Alexander 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 Emperor fled in a zigzag pattern. Soloviev fired five times but missed; he was hanged on 28 May, after being sentenced to death.
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 emperor's train.
On the evening of 5 February 1880 Stephan Khalturin, also from Narodnaya Volya, set off a timed charge under the dining room of the Winter Palace, right in the resting room of the guards a story below, killing 11 people and wounding 30 others. The New York Times (March 4, 1880) reported "the dynamite used was enclosed in an iron box, and exploded by a system of clockwork used by the man Thomas in Bremen some years ago." Fortunately for Alexander, dinner was delayed by the late arrival of the tsar's nephew, the Prince of Bulgaria, so the tsar and his family were not in the dining room at the time of the explosion and were unharmed.
By his empress consort, Tsarina Maria Alexandrovna, Alexander II had eight children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. He particularly placed hope in his eldest son, Tsarevich Nicholas. In 1864, Alexander II found Nicholas a bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, second daughter of King Christian IX of Denmark and younger sister to Alexandra, Princess of Wales and King George I of Greece. However, in 1865, during the engagement, Nicholas died and the tsar's second son, Grand Duke Alexander, not only inherited his brother's position of tsarevich, but also his fiancée. The couple married in November 1866, with Dagmar converting to Orthodoxy and taking the name Maria Feodorovna.
In time, political differences, and other disagreements, led to estrangement between the two Alexanders. Amongst his children, he remained particularly close with his second, and only surviving daughter, Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna. In 1873, a quarrel broke out between the courts of Queen Victoria and Alexander II, when Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, made it known that he wished to marry the Grand Duchess. The tsar objected to the queen's request to have his daughter come to England in order to meet her, and after the January 1874 wedding in St. Petersburg, the tsar insisted that his daughter be granted precedence over the Princess of Wales, which the queen rebuffed. Later that year, after attending the engagement ceremonies of his second surviving son, Vladimir, to Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in Berlin, Alexander II, with his third son, Alexei, accompanying him, made a visit to England. While not a state visit, but simply a trip to see his daughter, he nevertheless partook in receptions at Buckingham Palace and Marlborough House, inspected the artillery at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, reviewed troops at Aldershot and met both Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and leader of the opposition, William Gladstone. Disraeli observed of the tsar that "his mien and manners are gracious and graceful, but the expression of his countenance, which I could now very closely examine, is sad. Whether it is satiety, or the loneliness of despotism, or fear of a violent death, I know not, but it was a visage of, I should think, habitual mournfulness."
At home, Tsarina Marie Alexandrovna was suffering from tuberculosis and was spending increasing time abroad. In 1866, Alexander II took a mistress, Princess Catherine Dolgorukya, with whom he would father three surviving children. The affair, in the face of the tsarina's declining health, served to alienate the rest of his adult children, save his son Alexei and his daughter, who, like Alexander II's brothers, believed that the tsar was beyond criticism. In 1880, however, following threats on Catherine's life, the tsar moved his mistress and their children into the Winter Palace, installing them in rooms directly above the apartments of his ailing wife. When Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna made a visit in May 1880, being warned that her mother was dying, she was horrified to learn of his father's mistress' living arrangements and confronted her father. Shocked by the loss of support from his daughter, he quietly retreated to Gatchina Palace for military reviews. The quarrel, however, evidently, jolted his conscience enough to lead him to return to St. Petersburg each morning to ask after his wife's health. The tsarina, however, had not much longer to live, dying on 3 June [O.S. 22 May] 1880. On 18 July [O.S. 6 July] 1880, Alexander II and Catherine were married in a secret ceremony at Tsarskoe Selo. The action scandalized both his family and the court, also violating Orthodox custom which required a minimum period of 40 days mourning between the death of a spouse and the remarriage of a surviving spouse, eliciting criticism in foreign courts. Alexander also bestowed on Catherine the title of Princess Yurievskaya and legitimized their children.
After the last assassination attempt in February 1880, 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 realised.
As he was known to do every Sunday for many years, the emperor went to the Mikhailovsky Manège for the military roll call. He travelled both to and from the Manège in a closed carriage accompanied by five Cossacks and Frank (Franciszek) Joseph Jackowski, a Polish noble, with a sixth Cossack sitting on the coachman's left. The emperor's carriage was followed by two sleighs carrying, among others, the chief of police and the chief of the emperor's guards. The route, as always, was via the Catherine Canal and over the Pevchesky Bridge.
The street was flanked by narrow pavements for the public. A young member of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") movement, Nikolai Rysakov, was carrying a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief. He later said of his attempt to kill the Tsar:
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, had only damaged the bulletproof carriage, a gift from Napoleon III of France. The emperor emerged shaken but unhurt. Rysakov was captured almost immediately. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky heard Rysakov shout out to someone else in the gathering crowd. The surrounding guards and the Cossacks urged the emperor to leave the area at once rather than being shown the site of the explosion.
Nevertheless, a second young member of the Narodnaya Volya, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, standing by the canal fence, raised both arms and threw something at the emperor's feet. He was alleged to have shouted, "It is too early to thank God". 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 emperor. 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 czar'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, sabres, 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 bombers failed.
Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace to his study where almost the same day twenty years earlier, he had signed the Emancipation Edict freeing the serfs. Alexander was bleeding to death, with his legs torn away, his stomach ripped open, and his face mutilated. Members of the Romanov family came rushing to the scene.
The dying emperor was given Communion and Last Rites. When the attending physician, Sergey Botkin, was asked how long it would be, he replied, "Up to fifteen minutes." At 3:30 that day, the standard of Alexander II (his personal flag) was lowered for the last time.
Alexander II's death caused a great setback for the reform movement. One of his last acts was the approval of Mikhail Loris-Melikov's constitutional reforms. Though the reforms were conservative in practice, their significance lay in the value Alexander II attributed to them: "I have given my approval, but I do not hide from myself the fact that it is the first step towards a constitution." In a matter of 48 hours, Alexander II planned to release these plans to the Russian people. Instead, following his succession Alexander III under the advice of Konstantin Pobedonostsev chose to abandon these reforms and went on to pursue a policy of greater autocratic power.
The assassination triggered major suppression of civil liberties in Russia, and police brutality burst back in full force after experiencing some restraint under the reign of Alexander II, whose death was witnessed first-hand by his son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, both future emperors who vowed not to have the same fate befall them. Both of them used the Okhrana to arrest protestors and uproot suspected rebel groups, creating further suppression of personal freedom for the Russian people. A series of anti-Jewish pogroms and antisemitic legislation, the May Laws, were yet another result.
With construction starting in 1883, the Church of the Savior on Blood was built on the site of Alexander's assassination and dedicated in his memory.
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In 1838–39, as a young bachelor, Alexander made the Grand Tour of Europe which was standard for young men of his class at that time. One of the purposes of the tour was to select a suitable bride for himself. He stayed for three days with the maiden Queen Victoria, who was already Queen although she was one year younger than him. The two got along well, but there was no question of marriage between two major monarchs. Alexander went on to Germany, and in Darmstadt, he met and was charmed by the 15-year-old daughter of Louis II, Grand Duke of Hesse. On 16 April 1841, aged 23, Tsarevitch Alexander married Princess Marie of Hesse in St. Petersburg, The bride had previously been received into the Russian Orthodox Church and had taken a new name; she would thereafter be known as Maria Alexandrovna.
(Marie was the legal daughter of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Wilhelmina of Baden, although some gossiping questioned whether the Grand Duke Ludwig or Wilhelmina'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:
Empress Maria Alexandrovna died of tuberculosis on 3 June 1880, at the age of fifty-five.
A favourite dog of Alexander II was an Irish Setter named Milord. Contemporaries wrote that Milord was a Black Setter, but now it is understood to have been a Red Setter with black color on the tips of its hair – which gave the dog a black color with a red nuance.
Many citizens of Saint Petersburg came to know the figure of the emperor – a tall stately man, who frequently walked with his Setter along the lattice of the Summer Garden. Milord was likely the most famous animal in the Russian Empire at that time.
Alexander II appears prominently in the opening two chapters of Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff (published in 1876 during Alexander's own lifetime). The Emperor sets the book's plot in motion and sends its eponymous protagonist on the dangerous and vital mission which would occupy the rest of the book. Verne presents Alexander II in a highly positive light, as an enlightened yet firm monarch, dealing confidently and decisively with a rebellion. Alexander's liberalism shows in a dialogue with the chief of police, who says "There was a time, sire, when NONE returned from Siberia", to be immediately rebuked by the Emperor who answers: "Well, whilst I live, Siberia is and shall be a country whence men CAN return."
In The Tiger in the Well, Philip Pullman refers to the assassination – though he never names Alexander – and to the pogroms that followed. The anti-Jewish attacks play an important role in the novel's plot. Andrew Williams's historical thriller, To Kill A Tsar, tells the story of The People's Will revolutionaries and the assassination through the eyes of an Anglo-Russian doctor living in St Petersburg.
Oscar Wilde's first play Vera; or, The Nihilists, written in 1880—Alexander II's last year—features Russian revolutionaries who seek to assassinate a reform-minded Emperor (and who, in the play, ultimately fail in their plot). Though Wilde's fictional Emperor differs from the actual Alexander, contemporary events[which?] in Russia – as published in the British press of the time – clearly[original research?] influenced Wilde.
Mark Twain describes a short visit with Alexander II in Chapter 37 of The Innocents Abroad, describing him as "very tall and spare, and a determined-looking man, though a very pleasant-looking one nevertheless. It is easy to see that he is kind and affectionate. There is something very noble in his expression when his cap is off."
|Ancestors of Alexander II of Russia|
Alexander II of Russia
|Reference style||His Imperial Majesty|
|Spoken style||Your Imperial Majesty|
Alexander II, portrait by Konstantin Makovsky. 1881
A monument to Alexander II in Częstochowa, the spiritual heart of Poland.
A monument to Alexander II in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
The tsarevich was the first Romanov heir to visit Siberia, where convicts and exiles were sent.
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Alexander II of Russia
Alexander II of Russia
Cadet branch of the House of OldenburgBorn: 29 April 1818 Died: 13 March 1881
|Emperor of Russia
Grand Duke of Finland
|King of Poland
Annexation by Russia