In three centuries of Romanov rule, Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1818-1881) was the best-prepared heir to take the throne. His father the ‘Soldier Tsar’ Nicholas I was a pugnacious emperor who sought to expand the Russian empire and rule his people with an iron fist. By contrast, Grand Duke Alexander’s education was placed in the hands of poet and literary critic Vasily Zhukovsky who told the Tsar that he would educate the Tsarevich as ‘a future enlightened monarch’. He was schooled in several languages with an emphasis on the arts, diplomacy and the Russian constitution. Tsarevich Alexander would later distinguish himself at the First Military Academy and served in the Caucasian War.
Aged nineteen, the Tsarevich was sent on a tour of Russia and Europe. In 1839, the twenty-one-year old Alexander paid court to Queen Victoria who reported in her diary ‘I really am quite in love with the Grand Duke. He is a dear, delightful young man’. Alexander danced until the small hours with The Queen at Buckingham Palace, attended the theatre and opera with her where they shared a box alone together and stole her heart. When they parted, Queen Victoria wrote ‘I really love this amiable and dear young man who has such a sweet smile’.
Emperor Nicholas I crushed all hope of a union that would have demanded Alexander’s abdication from the Russian throne. He continued to tour Europe and fell in love with Prussian Princess Sophie of Hesse-Darmstadt who converted to Russian Orthodoxy, changed her name to Marie Aleandrovna and married the Tsarevich in 1841. On his return to Russia, Nicholas I allowed his eldest son to deputise for him on the numerous occasions the Tsar was absent from St Petersburg and also gave him access to state papers.
In 1855, Nicholas I died leaving the new Emperor Alexander II to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the disastrous Crimean War that had seen monumental loss of life amongst the Russian peasant class who were forced to enlist and die as canon fodder. Tsar Alexander inherited a Russia humiliated by the Crimean defeat. The Russian empire was essentially run like an 18th century autocracy in a 19th century world.
Emperor Alexander would go down in Russian history as the greatest reformer since Peter the Great: the Tsar who built St Petersburg. Under his rule, censorship was relaxed, educational reforms imposed and the judicial system was given open courts and trial by jury. He wisely said ‘it is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below’. Thus in 1861 he commanded that Russia’s twenty-two million serfs be freed under the Emancipation Law. The law had mixed success because the aristocratic landowners forced to sell or rent land to the former serfs out-priced their former slaves.
Though the Empress Marie bore the Emperor eight children, the marriage was not happy and broke down in 1866 when the forty-seven-year old Alexander took-up with eighteen-year-old Princess Catherine Dolgorukova. The affair would outlive Empress Marie but not before the Emperor had installed the princess and their four illegitimate children in rooms above the royal apartments in the Winter Palace. In 1874, Emperor Alexander returned to Queen Victoria’s court to accompany his daughter the Grand Duchess Maria who had married The Queen’s second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. Queen Victoria noted in her diary, ‘he is terribly altered, so thin, and his face looks so old, sad and careworn’.
In 1876, Emperor Alexander embarked on his most distinguished military campaign when he came to the aid of Bulgaria; a country annexed by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years. The Tsar was a champion of oppressed Orthodox Christians and, though 200,000 Russian soldiers were killed, Bulgaria was liberated earning him the title ‘Il Liberator’. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was correct in observing ‘whether it is the loneliness of despotism or fear of a violent death, I know not. But his is a visage of habitual mournfulness’. Despite his liberalism, Emperor Alexander was the target of numerous assassination attempts.
In the last years of his life, the Tsar contemplated giving up his powers of divine right and making Russia a constitutional monarchy. He was increasingly tired of travelling round St Petersburg with a heavy military presence of Cossack guards enclosed in a bulletproof carriage that was a gift from Emperor Napoleon III of the French.
On March 13th 1881, a trio of assassins from the People’s Will faction ambushed the Tsar’s carriage with a bomb that killed Emperor Alexander’s Cossack guards but left him unharmed. The Tsar got out of the carriage to tend to the wounded but a second assassin hurled a bomb at his feet. The assassin described the scene thus: ‘through the snow, debris and blood, you could see fragments of clothing, epaulettes, sabres and bloody chunks of human flesh’. The Tsar bled to death in the Winter Palace with his legs torn away, his stomach ripped open and his face mutilated with his Irish setter, Milord, by his side.