Alexander II of Russia

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Alexander II (1818-1881)
Alexander II (1818-1881)

Alexander (Aleksandr) II (Russian: Александр II Николаевич) (April 17, 1818March 13, 1881) was the Emperor (tsar) of Russia from March 2, 1855 until his assassination. As such, he was also the Grand Duke of Finland 1855-1881.

He was born the eldest son of Nicholas I of Russia and Charlotte of Prussia, daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. His early life gave little indication of his potential, and up to the time of his accession in 1855, few imagined that he would be known to posterity as a great reformer.


Early life

In so far as he had any decided political convictions, Alexander seemed to be imbued with the reactionary spirit predominant in Europe at the time of his birth, and which continued in Russia to the end of his father's reign. In the period of thirty years during which he was heir apparent, the moral atmosphere of St. Petersburg was unfavorable to the development of any originality of thought. Government was based on principles under which all freedom of thought and all private initiative were, as far as possible, suppressed vigorously. Personal and official censorship was rife; criticism of the authorities was regarded as a serious offense.

Under supervision of the liberal poet Vasily Zhukovsky, Alexander received the education commonly given to young Russians of good family at that time: a smattering of a great many subjects, and a good practical acquaintance with the chief modern European languages. He took little personal interest in military affairs. To the disappointment of his father, who was passionate about the military, he showed no love of soldiering. Alexander gave evidence of a kind disposition and a tender-heartedness which were considered out of place in one destined to become a military autocrat.

Missing image
Tsar Alexander II, his wife Marie and son, the future Alexander III

Marriages and Children

On April 16, 1841 he married Princess Marie in St. Petersburg, the daughter of the Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine, thereafter known as Marie Alexandrovna. The marriage produced six sons and two daughters:

  • Alexandra Alexandrovna (1842-1849).
  • Nicholas Alexandrovich (1843-1865). He was engaged to princess Dagmar of Denmark, who later married his brother Alexander III under the name Maria Fyodorovna.
  • Alexander III
  • Marie Alexandrovna (1853-1920). Married Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
  • Vladimir Alexandrovich (1847-1909). Married Princess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and had issue: three sons (Grand Dukes Kirill, Boris and Andrey Vladimirovich) and a daughter (Grand Duchess Elena, who married Prince Nicholas of Greece).
  • Alexei Alexandrovich (1850-1908). Married Alexandra Zhukovsky and had a son (executed by the Communist regime in 1932).
  • Sergei Alexandrovich (1857-1905). Married Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in Alapaevsk in 1918. They had no children.
  • Paul Alexandrovich (1860-1919). Married first Alexandra of Greece (daughter of George I of Greece) and second Olga Karnovich Von Pistolkors, Princess Paley, and had issue by both. Both Grand Duke Paul and his son Prince Vladimir Paley (1897-1918), a remarkable poet, were killed by the Bolsheviks.

On July 6, 1880, less than a month after Marie's death on June 8, Alexander formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki, with whom he already had three children. A fourth child would be born to them before his death.

  • George Alexandrovich Romanov Yurievsky (1872-1913). Married Countess Alexandra Zarnekau and had issue. They later divorced.
  • Olga Alexandrovna Romanov Yurievsky (1873-1925). Married Count George Von Merenberg.
  • Boris Alexandrovich Yurievsky (1876-1876).
  • Catherine Alexandrovna Romanov Yurievsky (1878-1959). Married first Prince Alexander V. Bariatinsky and second Prince Serge Obolensky, which she later divorced.


Alexander succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1855.

The first year of Alexander's reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean War, and after the fall of Sevastopol to negotiations for peace, led by his trusted councellor, Prince Gorchakov. Then began a period of radical reforms, encouraged by public opinion but carried out with autocratic power. All who had any pretensions to enlightenment declared loudly that the country had been exhausted and humiliated by the war, and that the only way of restoring it to its proper position in Europe was to develop its natural resources and thoroughly to reform all branches of the administration. The government therefore found in the educated classes a new-born public spirit, anxious to assist it in any work of reform that it might think fit to undertake.

Fortunately for Russia the autocratic power was now in the hands of a man who was impressionable enough to be deeply influenced by the spirit of the time, and who had sufficient prudence and practicality to prevent his being carried away by the prevailing excitement into the dangerous region of utopian dreaming. Unlike some of his predecessors, he had no grand, original schemes of his own to impose by force on unwilling subjects, and no pet projects to lead his judgment astray. He looked instinctively with a suspicious, critical eye upon the panaceas which more imaginative and less cautious people recommended. These character traits, together with the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed, determined the part which he was to, in great measure, brought to fruition the reform aspirations of the educated classes.

However, the growth of a revolutionary movement to the "left" of the educated classes led to an abrupt end to Alexander's changes when he was assassinated by a bomb in 1881. It is interesting to note that after Alexander became tsar in 1855, he maintained a generally liberal course at the helm while providing a target for numerous assassination attempts (1866,1873,1880).

Emancipation of the serfs

Main article: Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia.

Though he carefully guarded his autocratic rights and privileges, and obstinately resisted all efforts to push him farther than he felt inclined to go, Alexander for several years acted somewhat like a constitutional sovereign of the continental type. 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. At the same time, 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.

Then it was found that further progress was blocked by a formidable obstacle: the existence of serfdom. Alexander showed that, unlike his father, he meant to grapple boldly with this difficult and dangerous problem. 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 was followed by one still 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, 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 deliberations at once raised a host of important, thorny questions. 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 little of the special knowledge required for dealing successfully with such problems, and he had to restrict himself to choosing between the different measures recommended to him. The main point at issue was whether the serfs should become agricultural laborers dependent economically and administratively on the landlords, or whether they should 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.

On March 3, 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published.

Other reforms

Other reforms followed: army and navy re-organization (1874); a new judicial administration based on the French model (1864); a new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure; an elaborate scheme of local self-government 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.

These new institutions were incomparably better than the ones which they replaced, but they did not work such miracles as the inexperienced enthusiasts expected. Comparisons were made, not with the past, but with an ideal state of things which never existed, either in Russia or elsewhere. Hence arose a general feeling of disappointment, which acted on differently-minded people in different ways. When radicalism began to resort to the formation of secret societies and to revolutionary agitation, Alexander II felt constrained to adopt severe repressive measures.

Alexander II resolved to try the effect of some moderate liberal reforms in an attempt to quell the revolutionary agitation, and for this purpose he caused an ukase to be prepared creating special commissions, composed of high officials and private personages who should prepare reforms in various branches of the administration.

Suppression of national movements

Missing image
A 19th century cartoon of Alexander II, as he plunges into an abyss on a sled labeled "despotism"

At the beginning of his reign, Alexander expressed the famous statement "No dreams" addressed for Poles, populating Congress Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia and Belorus. The result was the January Uprising of 1863-4 that was suppressed after eighteen months of fighting. Thousands of Poles were executed, tens of thousands were deported to Siberia. The price for suppression was Russian support for Prussian-united Germany. Twenty years later, Germany became the major enemy of Russia on continent.

All territories of the former Poland-Lithuania were excluded from liberal polices introduced by Alexander. The martial law in Lithuania, introduced in 1863, lasted for 50 next years. Native languages, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were completely banned from printed texts, see, e.g., Ems Ukase. The Polish language was banned both oral and written from the all provinces except Congress Kingdom, where it was allowed in private conversations only.

Assassination attempts

In 1866 there was an attempt on his life in Petersburg by Dmitry Karakozov. To commemorate his narrow escape from death (that he referred to only as "the event of April 4, 1866") he held a competition to design a great gate for the city. Architect, painter and costume designer Viktor Hartmann won the competition. The design was well-received and Hartmann thought it was his finest work but it was never built. The painting of the design later became Mussorgsky's inspiration for The Great Gate of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition.

On the morning of April 20, 1879, Alexander II was walking towards the Square of the Guards Staff and faced Alexander Soloviev, a 33 year-old former student. Having seen a revolver in his hands, the Tsar ran away; Soloviev fired five times but missed. He was sentenced to death and hanged on the May 28.

The student acted on his own, but other revolutionaries were keen to terminate Alexander. In December 1879 the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), a radical revolutionary group which hoped to ignite a social revolution, organized an explosion on the railway from Livadia to Moscow, but they missed the Tsar's train. Subsequently, on the evening of February 5, 1880 the same revolutionaries set off a charge under the dining room of the Winter Palace, right in the resting room of the Guards a story below. The Tsar was not harmed as he was late to the supper, and the explosion would not destroy the dining room either, although the floor was heavily damaged.


After the last assassination attempt, Count Loris-Melikov was appointed the head of Supreme Executive Comission 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 realized as on March 13, 1881 Alexander fell victim to a Nihilist plot. While driving on one of the central streets of St. Petersburg, near the Winter Palace, he was mortally wounded by the explosion of hand-made grenades and died a few hours afterwards. Nikolai Kibalchich, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Rysakov, Timofei Mikhailov, Andrei Zhelyabov were arrested and sentenced to death. Gesya Gelfman was sent to Siberia. The Tsar was killed by the Pole Ignacy Hryniewiecki (1856-1881), who died during the attack. Hryniewiecki was a Pole from Lithuania (Bobrujsk, now Babruysk, Belarus), where suppression of Poles and persecutions were the harshest. The Russians had instigated a complete ban on Polish language in public places, schools and office in a process now known as Russification.

On the site where he was wounded, the Church of the Savior on Blood was erected.

Preceded by:
Nicholas I
Emperor of Russia
March 2, 1855March 13, 1881
Succeeded by:
Alexander III

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de:Alexander II. (Russland)

et:Aleksander II (Venemaa) eo:Aleksandro la 2-a (Rusio) fr:Alexandre II de Russie gl:Alexandre II de Rusia it:Alessandro II di Russia nl:Alexander II van Rusland ja:アレクサンドル2世 (ロシア皇帝) pl:Aleksander II (car rosyjski) pt:Alexandre II da Rssia ru:Александр II fi:Aleksanteri II sv:Alexander II av Ryssland zh:亚历山大二世 (俄罗斯)


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