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Alexander II


(18181881), tsar and emperor of Russia from 1855 to 1881.

Alexander Nicholayevich Romanov is largely remembered for two eventshis decision to emancipate the serfs and his assassination at the hands of revolutionaries. That the same tsar who finally ended serfdom in Russia would become the only tsar to be assassinated by political terrorists illustrates the turbulence of his time and its contradictions.

education and the great reforms

Alexander was born in Moscow on April 17, 1818, the oldest son of Nicholas I. His education, unlike that of his father, prepared him for his eventual role as tsar from an early age. Initially his upbringing consisted primarily of military matters. Nicholas had his son named the head of a hussar regiment when Alexander was a few days old, and he received promotions throughout childhood. When he was six, Captain K. K. Merder, the head of a Moscow military school, became his first tutor. Merder was a career army man who combined a love for the military with a compassion for others. Both qualities attracted the tsarevich and shaped his outlook. Alexander also received instruction from Vasily Zhukovsky, the famous poet, who crafted a plan for education that stressed virtue and enlightenment. The young tsarevich

made journeys throughout the Russian Empire and in Europe, and in 1837 he became the first emperor to visit Siberia, where he even met with Decembrists and petitioned his father to improve their conditions. During his trip to Europe in 1838 Alexander fell in love with a princess from the small German state of Hesse-Darmstadt. Although Nicholas I desired a better match for his son, Alexander married Maria Alexandrova in April 1841. They would have eight children, two of whom died young. Their third child, Alexander, was born in 1845 and eventually became the heir.

Nicholas I included his son in both the symbolic and practical aspects of governing. Nicholas had not received training for his role and believed that he was unprepared for the responsibilities of a Russian autocrat. He did not want Alexander to have a similar experience, and he included his son in the frequent parades, military spectacles, and other symbolic aspects central to the Nicholavan political system. Alexander loved these events and he took pleasure in participating at the numerous exercises held by Nicholas I. In several important respects, this military culture shaped Alexander's beliefs about ruling Russia.

Alexander also became a member of imperial councils, supervised the operation of military schools, and even presided over State Council meetings when his father could not. In 1846, Nicholas named Alexander chairman of the Secret Committee on Peasant Affairs, where the tsarevich demonstrated support of the existing socio-political order. In short, Alexander grew up in a system that stressed the necessity of an autocrat for governing Russia and he learned to worship his father from an early age. His education and training gave no indication of the momentous decisions he would make as tsar.

Few would have predicated the circumstances in which Alexander became emperor. Nicholas I died in 1855 amidst the disastrous Crimean War. Russia's eventual loss was evident by the time of Nicholas's death, and the defeat did much to undermine the entire Nicholaven system and its ideology of Official Nationality. Alexander had absorbed his father's belief in the autocracy, but he was forced by the circumstances of war to adopt policies that would fundamentally change Russia and its political system.

Alexander became emperor on February 19, 1855, a day that would reappear again during the course of his reign. His coronation as Russian Emperor took place in Moscow on August 26, 1856. Between these two dates Alexander grappled with the ongoing war, which went from bad to worse. Sevastopol, the fortified city in the Crimea that became the defining site of the war, fell on September 9, 1855. Alexander began peace negotiations and signed the resulting Treaty of Paris on March 30,1856. Russia lost its naval rights in the Black Sea in addition to 500,000 soldiers lost fighting the war. The prestige of the Russian army, which had acquired almost mythical status since 1812, dissipated with defeat. The events of the first year of his reign forced Alexander's handCrimea had demonstrated the necessity for reform, and Alexander acted.

Immediately after the war, Alexander uttered the most famous words of his reign when he answered a group of Moscow nobles in 1856 who asked about his intention to free the serfs: "I cannot tell you that I totally oppose this; we live in an era in which this must eventually happen. I believe that you are of the same opinion as I; therefore, it will be much better if this takes place from above than from below." Alexander's words speak volumes about the way in which the tsar conceived of reformit was a necessity, but it was better to enact change within the autocratic system. This blend of reform-mindedness with a simultaneous commitment to autocracy became the hallmark of the era that followed. Once he had decided on reform, Alexander II relied on the advice of his ministers and bureaucracies. Nevertheless, Alexander did much to end serfdom in Russia, an act his predecessors had failed to enact.

The process of emancipation was a complicated and controversial affair. It began in 1856, when Alexander II formed a secret committee to elicit proposals for the reform and did not end until 1861, when the emancipation decree was issued on February 19. In between these two dates Alexander dealt with a great deal of debate, opposition, and compromise. Emancipation affected twenty million serfs and nearly thirty million state peasants, or 8 percent of the Russian population. By contrast, four million slaves were freed in the United States in 1863. Although the end result did not fully satisfy anyone, a fundamental break had been made in the economy and society of Russia. Even Alexander Herzen, who had labeled Nicholas I as a "snake that strangled Russia," exclaimed: "Thou hast conquered, Galilean!" Because of Alexander's role, he became known as the Tsar-Liberator.

Once emancipation had been completed, Alexander proceeded to approve further reforms, often referred to by historians as the Great Reforms. The tsar himself did not participate as much in the changes that came after 1861, but Alexander appointed the men who would be responsible for drafting reforms and gave the final approval on the changes. Between 1864 and 1874 Alexander promulgated a new local government reform (creating the zemstvo ), a new judicial reform, educational reforms, a relaxed censorship law, and a new military law. All were carried out in the new spirit of glasnost, or "giving voice," that Alexander advocated. The tsar relied on officials who had been trained during his father's years on the throne, and thus the reforms are also associated with the names of Nicholas Milyutin, Petr Valuev, Dmitry Milyutin, and other "enlightened bureaucrats." Additionally, Russians from all walks of life debated the reforms and their specifics in an atmosphere that contrasted starkly with Nicholas I's Russia.

This new spirit brought with it a multitude of reactions and opinions. Alexander, a committed autocrat throughout the reform era, had to deal with rebellions and revolutionaries almost immediately after launching his reforms. These reactions were a natural product of the more relaxed era and of the policies Alexander advocated, even if he did not foresee all of their consequences. In particular, Alexander's decision to reform Russia helped to fuel a revolt in Poland, then a part of the Russian Empire. Polish nationalism in 1863 led to a Warsaw rebellion that demanded more freedoms. In the face of this opposition, Alexander reacted in the same manner as his father, brutally suppressing the revolt. Unlike his father, however, Alexander did not embark on a policy of Russification in other areas of the Empire, and even allowed the Finnish parliament to meet again in 1863 as a reward for loyalty to the empire.

At home, the reform era only served to embolden Russians who wanted the country to engage in more radical changes. The educated public in the 1850s and 1860s openly debated the details of the Great Reforms and found many of them wanting. As a result of his policies, Alexander helped to spawn a politically radical movement that called for an end to autocracy. A group that called itself "Land and Liberty" formed in Russia's universities and called for a more violent and total revolution among the Russian peasantry. A similar group known as the Organization made calls for radical change at the same time. On April 6, 1866, a member of this group, Dmitry Karakazov, fired six times at Alexander while he walked in the Summer Garden but spectacularly missed. Although the reform era was not officially over, 1866 marked a watershed in the life of Alexander II and his country. The tsar did not stay committed to the path of reform while the opposition that the era had unleashed only grew.

later years

Alexander had let loose the forces that eventually killed him, but between 1866 and 1881 Russia experienced many more significant changes. Karakazov's attempt on Alexander's life came during a period of domestic turmoil for Alexander. The year before, the tsar's eldest son, Nicholas, died at the age of twenty-two. Three months after the assassination attempt, Alexander began an affair with an eighteen-year old princess, Ekaterina Dolgorukaia, which lasted for the remainder of his life (he later married her). Responding to the growing revolutionary movement, Alexander increased the powers of the Third Section, the notorious secret police formed by Nicholas I. The reform era and the initial spirit associated with it had changed irrevocably by 1866 even if it had not run its course.

Alexander began to concentrate on his role as emperor during the late 1860s and 1870s. In particular, he engaged in empire building and eventually warfare. He oversaw the Russian conquest of Central Asia that brought Turkestan, Tashkent, Samarkand, Khiva, and Kokand under Russian control. The gains in Central Asia came with a diplomatic cost, however. Expansion so near to the borders of India ensured that England looked on with increasing alarm at Russian imperialism, and during this period a "cold war" developed between the two powers.

Russia also pursued a more aggressive stance toward the Ottoman Empire, in part fueled by the rise of pan-Slavism at home. When Orthodox subjects rebelled against Turkey in 1875, numerous Russians called on the tsar to aid their fellow Slavs. Alexander, reluctant at first, eventually gave in to public opinion, particularly after Ottoman forces in 1876 slaughtered nearly thirty thousand Bulgarians who had come to aid the insurgents. Russia declared war on April 12, 1877. Although Russia experienced some difficulty in defeating the Turks, particularly at the fortress of Plevna, the war was presented to the Russian public as an attempt to liberate Orthodox subjects from Muslim oppression. Alexander's image as liberator featured prominently in the popular prints, press reports, and other accounts of the war. When Russian forces took Plevna in December 1877, they began a march to Istanbul that brought them to the gates of the Turkish capital. In the Caucasus, the final act took place on February 19, 1878, when Russian forces "liberated" the Turkish city of Erzerum. Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of San Stefano in March, which guaranteed massive Russian gains in the region. Alexander once more appeared to fulfill the role of Tsar-Liberator.

Alarmed by these developments, the European powers, including Russia's Prussian and Austrian allies, held an international conference in Berlin. Alexander saw most of his gains whittled away in an effort to prevent Russian hegemony in the Balkans. The resulting confusions helped to sow the seeds for the origins of World War I, but also provoked widespread disillusionment in Russia. Alexander considered the Berlin Treaty to be the worst moment in his career.

Alexander's domestic troubles only increased after 1878. The revolutionaries had not given up their opposition to the progress and scope of reform, and many Russian radicals began to focus their attention on the autocracy as the major impediment to future changes. A new Land and Freedom group emerged in the 1870s that called for all land to be given to the peasants and for a government that listened to "the will of the people." By the end of the decade, the organization had split into two groups. The Black Repartition focused on the land question, while the People's Will sought to establish a new political system in Russia by assassinating the tsar. After numerous attempts, they succeeded in their quest on March 1, 1881. As Alexander rode near the Catherine Canal, a bomb went off near the tsar's carriage, injuring several people. Alexander stepped out to inspect the damage when a second bomb landed at his feet and exploded. He was carried to the Winter Palace, where he died from massive blood loss.

Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, Alexander II was on his way to discuss the possibility of establishing a national assembly and a new constitution. This final reform would not be completed, and Alexander's era ended with him. The tsar's son and grandson, the future Alexander III and Nicholas II, were at the deathbed, and the sight of the autocrat dying as a result of his reforms would shape their respective rules. As Larissa Zakharova has concluded, the act of March 1 initiated the bloody trail to Russia's tragic twentieth century. Alexander II's tragedy became Russia's.

See also: berlin, congress of; black repartition; crimean war; emancipation act; nicholas i; paris, congress and treaty of 1856; people's will, the; russo-turkish wars; serfdom; zemstvo


Eklof, Ben; Bushnell, John; and Zakharova, Larissa, eds. (1994). Russia's Great Reforms, 18551881. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Field, Daniel. (1976). The End of Serfdom: Nobility and Bureaucracy in Russia, 18551861. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lincoln, W. Bruce. (1990). The Great Reforms: Autocracy, Bureaucracy, and the Politics of Change in Imperial Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Moss, Walter. (2002). Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. London: Anthem Press.

Mosse, Werner. (1962). Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. NY: Collier.

Rieber, Alfred. (1971). "Alexander II: A Revisionist View" Journal of Modern History. 43: 4258.

Tolstoy, Leo. (1995). Anna Karenina. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wortman, Richard. (2000). Scnearios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy, Vol. 2: From Alexander II to the Abdication of Nicholas II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zakharova, Larissa. (1996). "Emperor Alexander II, 18551881." In The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs, ed. Donald Raleigh. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Stephen M. Norris

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Alexander II

Alexander II

Born: April 17, 1818
Moscow, Russia
Died: March 1, 1881
St. Petersburg, Russia

Russian emperor

Alexander II was emperor of Russia from 1855 to 1881. He is called the "czar liberator" because he freed the serfs (poor peasants who lived on land owned by nobles) in 1861. Alexander's reign is famous in Russian history and is called the "era of great reforms."

Alexander as a young man

Alexander II, the oldest son of Emperor Nicholas I (17961855), was born in Moscow, Russia, on April 17, 1818. Because he would become emperor one day, Alexander was taught many different subjects. Vasili Zhukovski (17831852), a famous Russian poet, was his principal tutor, or private teacher. Alexander learned to speak Russian, German, French, English, and Polish. He gained a knowledge of military arts, finance, and diplomacy, or the study of dealing with foreign countries. From an early age he traveled widely in Russia and in other countries. For example, in 1837 he visited thirty Russian provinces, including Siberia (a frigid, northern region of Russia) where no member of the royal family had ever visited. Unlike his father, Alexander had various military and government jobs throughout his younger days. In fact during Nicholas's absence Alexander was given the duties of the czar, or Russian emperor.

Freeing the serfs

Before he became czar, Alexander did not believe that freeing the serfs was a good idea. He changed his mind because he believed that freeing the serfs was the only way to prevent them from revolting. However, freeing the more than forty million serfs was not an easy task. In 1861 Alexander created an emancipation, or freedom, law, which said that serfs could now marry, own property, and argue court cases. Each landowner had to determine the area of land owned by the serfs. Landowners also had to pay the serfs for the work they did. Each peasant family received their house and a certain amount of land. Land usually became the property of the village government, which had the power to distribute it among the families. Peasant families had to make payments for the land for more than fortynine years. The original landowner kept only a small portion of the land.

The emancipation law of 1861 has been called the greatest single law in history. It gave the serfs a more dignified life. Yet there were many problems. In many cases the serfs did not receive enough land and they were over-charged for it. Since they had to pay for the land, they could not easily move. Still, overall it was a good law for the Russian people.

Reforms at home

Because the serfs were now free citizens, it was necessary to reform the entire local system of government. A law in 1864 created local assemblies, which handled local finances, education, agriculture, medical care, and maintenance of the roads. A new voting system provided representation to the peasants in these assemblies. Peasants and their former landowners were brought together to work out problems in their villages.

During Alexander's reign other reforms were also started. Larger cities were given governmental assemblies similar to those of the villages. The Russian court system was reformed, and for the first time in Russian history, juries, or panels of citizens called together to decide court cases, were permitted. Court cases were debated publicly, and all social classes were made equal before the law. Censorship (or the silencing of certain opinions) was eased, which meant that people had more freedom of speech. Colleges were also freed from the rules imposed on them by Alexander's father Nicholas I.

Foreign policy

Alexander also had success in foreign relations. In 1860 he signed a treaty with China that ended a land dispute between the two nations. Russia successfully ended an uprising in Poland in 1863. Then in 1877 Alexander led Russia to war against Turkey in support of a group of Christians in the areas of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria.

A violent end

Despite the many reforms Alexander II made to improve the lives of the Russian people, in 1866 he became the target of revolutionaries, or people who fight for change. Terrorists, or people who use violence to achieve their goals, acted throughout the 1870s. They wanted constitutional changes, and they were also upset over several peasant uprisings that the government violently put down. A member of a terrorist group murdered Alexander II on March 1, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

For More Information

Almedingen, E.M. The Emperor Alexander II. London: Bodley Head, 1962.

Mosse, W. E. Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia. Rev. ed. New York: Collier, 1962.

Van der Kiste, John. The Romanovs, 18181959: Alexander II of Russia and His Family. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998.

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Alexander II (czar of Russia)

Alexander II, 1818–81, czar of Russia (1855–81), son and successor of Nicholas I. He ascended the throne during the Crimean War (1853–56) and immediately set about negotiating a peace (see Paris, Congress of). Influenced by Russia's defeat in the war and by peasant unrest Alexander embarked upon a modernization and reform program. The most important reform was the emancipation of the serfs (1861; see Emancipation, Edict of). This failed, however, to meet the land needs of the newly freed group and created many new problems. In 1864, a system of limited local self-government was introduced (see zemstvo) and the judicial system was partially Westernized. Municipal government was overhauled (1870), universal military training was introduced (1874), and censorship and control over education were temporarily relaxed. In Poland, Alexander initially adopted a moderate policy, granting the subject nation partial autonomy. When revolt broke out in 1863, however, Alexander reacted with brutal suppression, imposing severe Russification. The Western powers were sharply warned against interference. Prussia's support of Russia during this diplomatic crisis led to a Russo-Prussian rapprochement, and in 1872 the Three Emperors' League was formed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary. Throughout his reign Alexander promoted vigorous expansion in the East. The conquest of the Ussuri region in East Asia was confirmed by the Treaty of Beijing (1860) with China. Central Asia was added to Russia by the conquest of Kokand, Khiva, and Bokhara (1865–76). Alaska, however, was sold (1867) to the United States. In 1877–78 Russia waged war on Turkey, ostensibly to aid the oppressed Slavs in the Balkans (see Russo-Turkish Wars). Meanwhile, in domestic affairs, Alexander's reforms, while outraging many reactionaries, were regarded as far too moderate by the liberals and radicals. Radical activities increased sharply among the intelligentsia, resulting in a reassertion of repressive policies. When the populist, or "to the people," movement arose in the late 1860s (see narodniki), the government arrested and prosecuted hundreds of students. Many radicals responded with terrorist tactics. In 1881, after several unsuccessful attempts, a member of the People's Will, a terrorist offshoot of the populist movement, assassinated Alexander with a hand-thrown bomb; this on the very day (Mar. 13) that Alexander had signed a decree granting the zemstvos an advisory role in legislation. He was succeeded by his son Alexander III.

See studies by D. Footman (1974) and D. Lieven (1989).

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Alexander II

Alexander II (1818–81) Russian tsar (1855–81), known as the ‘Tsar Liberator’ for his emancipation of the serfs in 1861. He warred with Turkey (1877–78) and gained much influence in the Balkans. He sold Alaska (1867), but expanded the eastern part of the empire. Alexander brutally suppressed a revolt in Poland (1863). He was assassinated by revolutionaries.

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