(1777–1825), emperor of Russia from 1801–1825, son of Emperor Paul I and Maria Fyodorovna, grandson of Empress Catherine the Great.
childhood and education
When Alexander was a few months old, Catherine removed him from the care of his parents and brought him to her court, where she closely oversaw his education and upbringing. Together with his brother Konstantin Pavlovich, born in 1779, Alexander grew up amid the French cultural influences, numerous sexual intrigues, and enlightened political ideas of Catherine's court. Catherine placed General Nikolai Ivanovich Saltykov in charge of Alexander's education when he was six years old. Alexander's religious education was entrusted to Andrei Samborsky, a Russian Orthodox priest who had lived in England, dressed like an Englishman, and scandalized Russian conservatives with his progressive ways. The most influential of Alexander's tutors was Frederick Cesar LaHarpe, a prominent Swiss of republican principles who knew nothing of Russia. Alexander learned French, history, and political theory from LaHarpe. Through LaHarpe Alexander became acquainted with liberal political ideas of republican government, reform, and enlightened monarchy.
In sharp contrast to the formative influences on Alexander emanating from his grandmother's court were the influences of Gatchina, the court of Alexander's parents. Alexander and Konstantin regularly visited their parents and eight younger siblings at Gatchina, where militarism and Prussian influence were dominant. Clothing and hair styles differed between the two courts, as did the entire tone of life. While Catherine's court was dominated by endless social extravaganzas and discussion of ideas, Paul's court focused on the minutiae of military drills and parade ground performance.
The atmosphere of Gatchina was set by Paul's sudden bursts of rage and by a coarse barracks mentality.
Alexander's early life was made more complicated by the fact that Catherine, the present empress, and Paul, the future emperor, hated each other. Alexander was required to pass between these two courts and laugh at the insults which each of these powerful personages hurled at the other, while always remaining mindful of the fact that one presently held his fate in her hands and the other would determine his fate in the future. This complex situation may have contributed to Alexander's internal contradictions, indecisiveness, and dissimulation as an adult.
alexander's married life
When Alexander was fifteen, Catherine arranged a marriage for him with fourteen-year-old Princess Louisa of Baden (the future Empress Elizabeth) who took the name Elizabeth Alexeyevna when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy prior to the marriage. Although Alexander's youth prevented him from developing a passionate attachment to his wife, they became confidants and maintained a lukewarm relationship for the rest of their lives. Their relationship endured Alexander's long-term liaison with his mistress, Maria Naryshkina, his flirtations with a number of noblewomen throughout Europe, and rumors of an affair between Alexander's wife, Elizabeth, and his close friend and advisor, Adam Czartoryski. Czartoryski was reputed to be the father of the daughter born in 1799 to Elizabeth. Alexander and Elizabeth had no children who survived infancy.
the reign and death of paul
In November 1796, a few weeks before Alexander's nineteenth birthday, Empress Catherine died. There is some evidence that Catherine intended to bypass her son Paul and name Alexander as her heir. However, no such official proclamation was made during Catherine's lifetime, and Paul became the new emperor of Russia. Paul almost immediately began alienating the major power groups within Russia. He alienated liberal-minded Russians by imposing censorship and closing private printing presses. He alienated the military by switching to Prussianstyle uniforms, bypassing respected commanders, and issuing arbitrary commands. He alienated merchants and gentry by disrupting trade with Britain and thus hurting the Russian economy. Finally, he alienated the nobility by arbitrarily disgracing prominent noblemen and by ordering part of the Russian army to march to India. Not surprisingly, by March 1801 a plot had been hatched to remove Paul from the throne. The chief conspirators were Count Peter Pahlen, who was governor-general of St. Petersburg, General Leonty Bennigsen, and Platon Zubov—Empress Catherine's last lover—along with his two brothers, Nicholas and Valerian. Alexander was aware of the conspiracy but believed, or told himself that he believed, that Paul would be forced to abdicate but would not be killed. Paul was killed in the scuffle of the takeover. On March 12, 1801, Alexander, accompanied by a burden of remorse and guilt for patricide that accompanied him for the rest of his life, became Emperor Alexander I.
Alexander's reign began with a burst of reforms and the hope for a substantial overhaul of Russian government and society. Alexander revoked the sentences of about twelve thousand people sentenced to prison or exile by Emperor Paul; he eased restrictions on foreign travel, reopened private printing houses, and lessened censorship. Four of Alexander's most liberal friends formed a Secret Committee to help the young emperor plan sweeping reforms for Russia. The committee consisted of Prince Adam Czartoryski, Count Paul Stroganov, Count Victor Kochubei, and Nikolai Novosiltsev. During the first few years of his reign, Alexander improved the status of the Senate, reorganized the government into eight departments, and established new universities at Dorpat, Kazan, Kharkov, and Vilna. He also increased funding for secondary schools. Alexander did not, however, end serfdom or grant Russia a constitution. This series of reforms was brought to an end by Russian involvement in the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1807, following the Treaty of Tilsit, Mikhail Speransky became Alexander's assistant, and emphasis was again placed on reform. With Speransky's guidance, Alexander created an advisory Council of State. Speransky was also responsible for an elementary school reform law, a law requiring applicants for the higher ranks of state service to take a written examination, and reforms in taxation. In addition, Speransky created a proposal for reorganizing local government and for creating a national legislative assembly. Speransky's reforms aroused a storm of criticism from Russian conservatives, especially members of the imperial family. Alexander dismissed Speransky in 1812 just prior to resuming the war against Napoleon. In his place Alexander chose Alexei Arakcheyev, an advisor with a much different outlook, to assist him for the remainder of his reign.
The most momentous event of Alexander's reign was Russia's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars. Alexander began his reign by proclaiming Russian neutrality in the European conflict. However, during 1804 Russian public opinion became increasingly anti-French as a result of an incident in Baden—the homeland of Empress Elizabeth. The Duc d'Enghien, a member of the French royal family, was kidnapped from Baden, taken to France, and executed by the French government. Alexander and the Russian court were outraged by this act. The following year the Third Coalition was formed by Britain, Russia, and Austria. On December 2, 1805, Napoleon defeated a combined Russian and Austrian army at the Battle of Austerlitz. The Russians suffered approximately 26,000 casualties. After two major losses by their Prussian ally, the Russians were again resoundingly defeated at the Battle of Friedland in June 1807. This battle resulted in about 15,000 Russian casualties in one day. Following the defeat at Friedland, the Russians sued for peace.
The terms of the resulting Treaty of Tilsit were worked out by Alexander and Napoleon while they met on a raft anchored in the Nieman River. According to the agreement, Russia and France became allies, and Russia agreed to participate in the Continental System, Napoleon's blockade of British trade. A secondary Franco-Prussian treaty, also agreed upon at Tilsit, reduced Prussian territory, but perhaps saved Prussia. The Treaty of Tilsit was extremely unpopular with the Russian nobility, who suffered economically from the loss of exports to Britain. In addition, Russian and French foreign policy aims differed over the Near East, the Balkans, and Poland.
By June 1812, the Tilsit agreement had broken down, and Napoleon's army invaded Russia. Initially, the Russian forces were under the command of Generral Barclay de Tolley. The Russians suffered several defeats, including the loss of the city of Smolensk, as Napoleon's forces moved deeper into Russia. Alexander then gave command of the Russian army to Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov. Kutuzov continued the policy of trading space for time and keeping the Russian army just out of reach of Napoleon's forces. Finally, under pressure from Russian public opinion, which was critical of the continuous retreats, Kutuzov took a stand on September 7, 1812, at the village of Borodino, west of Moscow. The ensuing Battle of Borodino was one of the epic battles of European history. Napoleon's forces numbering about 130,000, faced about 120,000 Russian troops. During the oneday battle some 42,000 Russian casualties occurred, with about 58,000 casualties among the Napoleonic forces. Each side claimed victory, although the Russian forces retreated and allowed Napoleon to enter Moscow unchallenged.
Napoleon believed that the occupation of Moscow would bring an end to the war with Russia. Instead, Napoleon's forces entered the city to find that most of Moscow's inhabitants had fled and that Alexander refused to negotiate. To make matters worse, a few hours after the Napoleonic army arrived in Moscow, numerous fires broke out in the city, causing perhaps three-quarters of the city's structures to burn down. Responsibility for the burning of Moscow has been disputed. Napoleon apparently believed that the fires were set on the orders of Count Fyodor Rostopchin, the governor-general of the city. The Russian public, on the other hand, blamed careless French looters. The burning of Moscow had the effect of creating a swell of Russian patriotism and solidifying the determination of the Russians to resist Napoleon's forces.
After little more than a month in occupation, faced with insufficient food and shelter, Napoleon abandoned the burned-out shell of Moscow and retreated westward. The Russian army was able to maneuver the Napoleonic forces into retreating along the same route by which they had entered Russia, thus ensuring that there would be little or no fodder available for the horses and a shortage of supplies for the men. The shortage of provisions, combined with the onslaught of winter and continued harassment by Cossacks and peasant guerillas, resulted in the destruction of Napoleon's army without Kutuzov subjecting the Russian troops to another pitched battle.
Alexander insisted upon continuing the war after the last French troops had left Russian soil. A new coalition was formed among Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Their combined forces defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. By March 1814, Russian troops were in Paris. Alexander played a central role in the diplomatic negotiations that determined the form of the Bourbon restoration in France and the initial disposition of Napoleon on Elba. Alexander was also a key figure at the Congress of Vienna where the boundaries of the European states were redrawn.
holy alliance and mysticism
In September 1815, Russia, Austria, and Prussia signed the Holy Alliance at Alexander's urging. The Holy Alliance envisioned a Europe in which Christian principles would form the basis for international relations. Although the Holy Alliance had no practical effect, it provides a picture of Alexander's state of mind at that time.
Alexander had been a religious skeptic since his days as a student of Samborsky and LaHarpe. However, in November 1812, Alexander joined the Russian Bible Society headed by his friend Prince Alexander Golitsyn. The Russian Bible Society sought to translate and distribute Russian language scriptures. During 1814 Empress Elizabeth introduced Alexander to the mystic Johann Jung-Stilling. However, Alexander's immersion into mysticism began in earnest when he met Livonian Baroness Julie von Krudener in 1815. The height of her influence occurred in September 1815, when Alexander staged a massive review of Russian troops on the plain of Vertus in France. As part of the ceremony, seven altars were erected and a Te Deum was celebrated. The Holy Alliance was signed a few weeks later. Alexander lost interest in von Krudener when he returned to Russia late in 1815.
military colonies and latter years
Alexander relied increasingly on Arakcheyev to oversee the day-to-day business of running the Russian empire. Arakcheyev's notable, though dubious, achievement was the creation of military colonies. The military colonies were an experiment in regimented agriculture. The underlying idea was to create a military reserve by organizing villages of peasant-soldiers who would be ready to fight when needed but who would also be self-supporting. The peasants were to wear uniforms, live precisely regimented lives in identical cottages, and farm their fields with parade ground precision. Individual preference was not taken into consideration when marriage partners were selected, and women were ordered to bear one child per year. Brutal penalties deterred deviations from the rules.
The last years of Alexander's reign were marred by uprisings in Arakcheyev's military colonies and the rebellion of the Semenovsky Regiment. Alexander's government became increasingly repressive. Censorship was intensified, tighter control was placed over the universities, and landlords were given more power over the fate of their serfs. Under the influence of Archimandrite Photius, Alexander moved away from mysticism and closer to the Russian Orthodox Church. Masonic lodges were closed, and the Russian Bible Society was blocked from its goal of distributing Bibles in Russian. The reign which had begun with the hope of liberal reforms had moved full circle and ended as a bastion of repression.
In the fall of 1825 Alexander accompanied Empress Elizabeth to Taganrog when her doctors ordered her to leave St. Petersburg and move to a warmer climate. Alexander became ill on October 27 while touring the Crimea. He died on December 1, 1825, in Taganrog. Although Alexander's body was returned to St. Petersburg for burial, the closed casket gave rise to rumors that Alexander had not died. A legend developed that a Siberian holy man by the name of Fyodor Kuzmich was Alexander living incognito.
See also: catherine ii; elizabeth; holy alliance; napoleon i; paul i; speransky, mikhail mikhailovich
Grimstead, Patricia Kennedy. (1969). The Foreign Ministers of Alexander I: Political Attitudes and the Conduct of Russian Diplomacy, 1801–1825. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lincoln, W. Bruce. (1981). The Romanovs. New York: The Dial Press.
Palmer, Alan. (1974). Alexander I, Tsar of War and Peace. New York: Harper and Row.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. (1984). A History of Russia, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
Troyat, Henri. (1982). Alexander of Russia, Napoleon's Conqueror, tr. Joan Pinkham. New York: Dutton.
Jean K. Berger
Alexander I (1777-1825) was emperor of Russia from 1801 to 1825. His leadership in the defeat of Napoleon and his statesmanship at the Congress of Vienna contributed to a rare attempt at massive political reconstruction of Europe.
The eldest son of Czar Paul I, Alexander was born on Dec. 12, 1777. He was removed from the care of his parents and brought up under the careful guidance of his grandmother, Empress Catherine II. His principal tutor was César La Harpe, a Swiss revolutionary who, however, was willing to compromise with czarist absolutism as a means to achieve his end. La Harpe was an ardent disciple of the Enlightenment and instilled in his student a sincere attachment for its philosophy. Alexander did not master the Russian language, but he spoke fluent English and excellent French. He ended his formal education after his marriage to Elizabeth (Princess Louise of Baden) in September 1793.
At the court of Catherine II, Alexander was groomed to become her successor. But at his father's residence in Gatchina, where Alexander was a frequent visitor in the later years of Catherine's reign, he learned the art of warfare according to Prussian style. The exact military drill demanded of the soldiers by Paul I appealed to Alexander. At Gatchina, Alexander befriended Aleksei Arakcheev, who later became a close adviser.
Since the relationship between Catherine and her son Paul was hostile, she attempted to change the succession to Alexander. A letter from Alexander to Catherine in 1796, the year of her death, reveals that he was fully aware of the plan and had approved it. Paul reigned for 5 years. On March 11, 1801, a palace uprising led to Paul's murder, with the collaboration of Alexander. None of the participants in the conspiracy was tried or officially punished, but there is evidence that Alexander never entirely freed himself from the memories of that night.
The succession of Alexander I to the throne brought closer relations between Russia and England. Alexander ordered the recall of the Cossacks that Paul had sent to conquer India, and diplomatic relations were improved. This disturbed Napoleon because in 1801 France was at war with England, and he had made plans to dispatch a French expedition to join the Russian force undertaking the conquest of India. Alexander distrusted Napoleon and resented the unceremonious way in which he dealt with the crowned heads of the German and Italian states. In spite of their differences, a Franco-Russian treaty of amity was signed on Oct. 11, 1801, which called for close cooperation in all matters of common interest and for joint endeavors to keep peace.
In June 1802 Alexander, without consulting the minister of foreign affairs, Count Kochubey, established a personal friendship with Frederick William III of Prussia that lasted through peace and war.
On April 11, 1805, an Anglo-Russian treaty was signed for the liberation of Holland, northern Germany, Italy, and Switzerland from Napoleonic rule. In the ensuing war an Austro-Russian army of 90,000 men commanded by Gen. Mikhail Kutuzov was routed at the Battle of Austerlitz (Dec. 2, 1805). Alexander wept like a child during the retreat.
The war continued until July 1807, when the Franco-Russian treaty was signed at Tilsit. The alliance with France was not popular in Russia, and Mikhail Speranski, Alexander's secretary of state, felt that the Treaty of Tilsit contained practically all the ingredients of a future war between Russia and France. His fears were realized when Napoleon's army invaded Russia in June 1812. The severe Russian winter, however, proved insurmountable and led to disaster for Napoleon. By the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna on June 9, 1815, part of Poland was set up as a constitutional kingdom, and Alexander became its king.
When Alexander became czar, he was expected to initiate far-reaching constitutional and social reforms because of his liberalism. These hopes were nurtured by the early enlightened measures of his regime: the annulment of vexatious prohibitions enacted by Paul, provision for a broad amnesty, liberation of trade, permission to import foreign publications, removal of restriction on traveling abroad, and partial reform of the harsh penal procedure.
At Alexander's request Speranski drew up plans for constitutional reform. He recommended reforms of the government based on the doctrine of separation of powers— legislative, executive, and judicial—all of them, however, emanating from the czar. The right to vote was to be granted to all property owners. Although Speranski favored the eventual abolition of serfdom, he saw the difficulties in achieving emancipation.
Alexander rejected the doctrine of separation of powers, but Speranski did persuade Alexander to create a state council, a body to review laws passed by the emperor, although its decisions were not binding on the Crown. Alexander also approved Speranski's legislation of 1810-1811 for the reconstruction of the executive departments.
Speranski raised the civil service standards and instituted financial reforms. These measures infringed on the privileges of the landowning and bureaucratic classes, and to placate the nobility Alexander dismissed Speranski in 1812.
Alexander created the Holy Alliance in 1815, an agreement between the rulers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia that they would conduct themselves according to Christian principles. The Alliance became a symbol of repression and reaction, and Alexander's policies became more and more conservative.
The fact that Speranski's constitutional reforms were not carried out and that Alexander failed to fulfill his promise resulted in the emergence of organized political opposition in the form of secret societies. This opposition came from members of the upper classes and led to an abortive coup d'etat on Dec. 14, 1825. Alexander I had died on November 19.
The historian Nikolai M. Karamzin, a contemporary of Alexander I, described the achievements of Alexander I in Karamzin's Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, translated with an analysis by Richard Pipes (1959). Marc Raeff, Michael Speransky: Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772-1839 (1957), is a biographical study with extensive analyses of the political activities and projects of Count Speranski. Evgenii V. Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812 (1938; trans. 1942), is imbued with patriotism and often alludes to parallels between the Napoleonic invasion and threatened attack by Nazi Germany.
A good biography of Alexander I is Alan McConnell, Tsar Alexander I: Paternalistic Reformer (1970). Recommended for general historical background is vol. 2 of Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and an Interpretation (1953), the most thorough narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history available in English, which is particularly strong on the 19th and early 20th centuries. Alexander A. Kornilov, Modern Russian History from the Age of Catherine the Great to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1917; trans. 1943), gives an excellent picture of internal policies. The setting of Leo Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace (1868), is the Napoleonic invasion of Russia during the reign of Alexander I.
Evreinov, Ludmila, Alexander I, Emperor of Russia: a post-Communism reappraisal, New York: Riverrun Press, Calder Publications, 1995.
Hartley, Janet M., Alexander I, London; New York: Longman, 1994.
Troyat, Henri, Alexander of Russia, Napoleon's conqueror, New York: Dutton, 1982. □
Keith J. Stringer