emperor of Russia
Russian in full Aleksandr Pavlovich
born Dec. 23 [Dec. 12, old style], 1777, St. Petersburg,
died Dec. 1 [Nov. 19, O.S.], 1825, Taganrog
emperor of Russia (1801–25), who alternately fought and
befriended Napoleon I during the Napoleonic Wars but who
ultimately (1813–15) helped form the coalition that defeated
the emperor of the French. He took part in the Congress of
Vienna (1814–15), drove for the establishment of the Holy
Alliance (1815), and took part in the conferences that
Aleksandr Pavlovich was the first child of Grand Duke Pavel
Petrovich (later Paul I) and Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna,
a princess of Württemberg-Montbéliard. His grandmother, the
reigning empress Catherine II (the Great), took him from his
parents and raised him herself to prepare him to succeed
her. She was determined to disinherit her own son, Pavel,
who repelled her by his instability.
A friend and disciple of the philosophers of the French
Enlightenment, Catherine invited Denis Diderot, the
encyclopaedist, to become Alexander’s private tutor. When he
declined, she chose Frédéric-César La Harpe, a Swiss
citizen, a republican by conviction, and an excellent
educator. He inspired deep affection in his pupil and
permanently shaped his flexible and open mind.
As an adolescent, Alexander was allowed to visit his
father at Gatchina, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, away
from the court. There, Pavel had created a ridiculous little
kingdom where he devoted himself to military exercises and
parades. Alexander received his military training there
under the direction of a tough and rigid officer, Aleksey
Arakcheyev, who was faithfully attached to him and whom
Alexander loved throughout his life.
Alexander’s education was not continued after he was 16,
when his grandmother married him to Princess Louise of
Baden-Durlach, who was 14, in 1793. The precocious marriage
had been arranged to guarantee descendants to the Romanov
dynasty, and it was unhappy from the beginning. The sweet
and charming girl who became Yelisaveta Alekseyevna was
loved by everyone except her husband.
Catherine had already written the manifesto that deprived
her son of his rights and designated her grandson as the
heir to the throne, when she died suddenly on Nov. 17 (Nov.
6, O.S.), 1796. Alexander, who knew of it, did not dare to
disclose the manifesto, and Pavel became emperor.
Ascent to the throne.
Paul I’s reign was a dark period for Russia. The monarch’s
tyrannical and bizarre behaviour led to a plot against him
by certain nobles and military men, and he was assassinated
during the night of March 23 (March 11, O.S.), 1801.
Alexander became tsar the next day. The plotters had let him
in on the secret, assuring him they would not kill his
father but would only demand his abdication. Alexander
believed them or, at least, wished to believe that all would
After the darkness into which Paul had plunged Russia,
Alexander appeared to his subjects as a radiant dawn. He was
handsome, strong, pleasant, humane, and full of enthusiasm.
He wanted his reign to be a happy one and dreamed of great
and necessary reforms. With four friends, who were of noble
families but motivated by liberal ideas—Prince Adam
Czartoryski, Count Pavel Stroganov, Count Viktor Kochubey,
and Nikolay Novosiltsev—he formed the Private Committee (Neglasny
Komitet). Its avowed purpose was to frame “good laws, which
are the source of the well-being of the Nation.”
Alexander and his close advisers corrected many of the
injustices of the preceding reign and made many
administrative improvements. Their principal achievement was
the initiation of a vast plan for public education, which
involved the formation of many schools of different types,
institutions for training teachers, and the founding of
three new universities. Nevertheless, despite the
humanitarian ideas inculcated in him by La Harpe and despite
his own wish to make his people happy, Alexander lacked the
energy necessary to carry out the most urgent reform, the
abolition of serfdom. The institution of serfdom was, in the
Tsar’s own words, “a degradation” that kept Russia in a
disastrously backward state. But to liberate the serfs, who
composed three-quarters of the population, would arouse the
hostility of their noble masters, who did not want to lose
the slaves on whom their wealth and comfort depended.
Serfdom was a continuing burden on the Russians. It
prevented modernization of the country, which was at least a
century behind the rest of Europe.
Out of a sincere desire to innovate, Alexander considered
a constitution and “the limitation of the autocracy,” but he
recoiled before the danger of imposing sudden change on a
nobility that rejected it. Moreover, he was a visionary who
could not transform his dreams into reality. Because of his
unstable personality, he would become intoxicated by the
notion of grand projects, while balking at carrying them
out. Finally, the “Western” theoretical education of
Alexander and his young friends had not prepared them for
gaining a clear vision of the realities of Russian life.
Early foreign policy.
Displaying an astonishing inconstancy, Alexander abandoned
his internal reforms to devote himself to foreign policy, to
which he would commit the major portion of his reign.
Sensitive to fluctuations in continental politics, he was a
“European” who hoped for peace and unity. He felt that he
was called to be a mediator, like his grandmother, who had
been called the “Arbiter of Europe.”
As soon as he came to power, Alexander resealed an
alliance with England that had been broken by Paul I. He
nonetheless maintained good relations with France in the
hope of “moderating” Bonaparte by restraining his spirit of
conquest. A feeling of chivalry attached Alexander to the
king of Prussia, Frederick William III, and to Queen Louisa,
and a treaty of friendship was signed with Prussia. Later,
he got on good terms with Austria. His idealism persuaded
him that these alliances would lead to a European
Napoleon had other ideas. His territorial encroachments,
desire for world hegemony, and his coronation in 1804 as
emperor forced Alexander to declare war against him.
Assuming the role of commander in chief, he relied on the
Austrian generals and scorned the counsel of the Russian
general Prince Kutuzov, a shrewd strategist. The Russians
and Austrians were defeated at Austerlitz, in Moravia, on
Dec. 2, 1805, and the emperor Francis II was forced to sign
the peace treaty, since his territory was occupied by the
enemy. Russia remained intact behind its frontiers.
Moreover, Napoleon wanted to spare the Tsar; he hoped to
gain his friendship and to divide the world with him. Such a
notion did not occur to Alexander, who wanted revenge.
In 1806 Napoleon defeated Prussia at Jena and Auerstädt.
Despite the warnings of both his mother and his advisers,
the Tsar rushed to the aid of his friend. The battles were
fought in east Prussia. After a partial success at Eylau,
the Russian Army, under General Bennigsen, was decimated at
Friedland, on June 14, 1807. Then occurred the meeting (June
25) of the two emperors on a raft in the middle of the
Niemen off Tilsit (now Sovetsk). The sequel of these events
demonstrates that, in the course of the Tilsit interview, it
was the Tsar of Russia who deceived the Emperor of the
French. Seeking to gain time he used his charm to play the
admiring friend. He accepted all the victor’s conditions,
promising to break with England, to adhere to the
Continental System set up by Napoleon to isolate and weaken
Great Britain, and to recognize the creation of the Grand
Duchy of Warsaw, formed from the part of Poland given to
Prussia during the Partition of 1795. In “recompense”
Napoleon gave Alexander liberty to expand at the expense of
Sweden and Turkey.
From Tilsit to the 1812 invasion.
Most Russians were angered and humiliated by the Tilsit
Alliance; they thought that breaking off trade with England
would inevitably create a disastrous economic situation, but
Alexander kept his plans secret and bided his time. He
reorganized and strengthened his armies with the competent
aid of Arakcheyev, the instructor from Gatchina who had
become his indispensable colleague. Meanwhile, the monarch’s
popularity dropped; all levels of the population accused him
of having uselessly sacrificed Russian blood and of ruining
Alexander once again turned his attention to internal
reforms. He placed responsibility for them on a remarkable
legal writer, Mikhail Mikhaylovich Speransky. Of modest
origins, Speransky’s talent caused him to rise rapidly. He
conceived a vast plan for total reorganization of Russian
legal structures and authored a complete collection and a
systematically coordinated digest of Russian laws. Only a
very small part of his great plan was applied, for once
again Alexander withdrew from any practical fulfillment,
partly because foreign events distracted him from rebuilding
his empire on new foundations.
Despite the strong Russian reaction against France, the
Tsar again met Napoleon, at Erfurt in Saxony, in 1808, where
he showed himself to have become distant from his Tilsit
ally. When a new war broke out between France and Austria in
1809, Alexander, despite his commitments, did not intervene
in Napoleon’s behalf, contenting himself with feigning a
military advance. Napoleon reproached the Tsar for trading
with England under cover of neutral vessels and for refusing
him the hand of his sister, the grand duchess Anna Pavlovna.
For his part Alexander tried in vain to obtain from Napoleon
a commitment not to create an independent Kingdom of Poland.
When Napoleon annexed the German territories on the Baltic,
including the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg, a fief of the Tsar’s
brother-inlaw, Alexander protested against what he
considered a personal offense.
All of this was a pretext for military preparations on
both sides. A violent shift of opinion against Napoleon
appeared in Russia. The hostility toward France among the
court compelled Alexander to exile his legal adviser,
Speransky, an admirer of Napoleon and his Code. Changing his
opinions yet again, the Tsar adopted the reactionary ideas
of a patriotic group dominated by his favourite sister, the
grand duchess Yekaterina Pavlovna. He judged that, under the
conditions then prevailing, Russia had best keep its
The defeat of Napoleon.
Napoleon and his Grand Army of 600,000 men invaded Russia on
June 24, 1812. The conflict that ensued was justly called
the Patriotic War by the Russians; in it, the strong
resistance and outstanding endurance of an entire people
were displayed. The war transformed Alexander, suffusing him
with energy and determination. The French advanced as
rapidly as the Russians retreated, drawing them away from
their bases. Napoleon thought that, once Moscow was taken,
the Tsar would capitulate. But after the bloody Battle of
Borodino, Napoleon entered a largely deserted Moscow, which
was soon nearly destroyed by fire. The conqueror had to camp
in a ruined city where he could not remain, and Alexander
did not sue for peace. The Tsar, meanwhile, under pressure
of public opinion, had named Kutuzov, whom he detested,
supreme commander. The old warrior, through brilliant
strategy and with the aid of heroic partisans, pursued the
enemy and drove him from the country. The retreat from
Russia, combined with Napoleon’s reverses in Spain,
precipitated his downfall.
Alexander had declared, “Napoleon or I: from now on we
cannot reign together!” He said that the burning of Moscow
had “illuminated his soul.” He called Europe to arms, to
rescue the people who had been enslaved by Napoleon’s
conquests. His enthusiasm, perseverance, and steadfast
determination to triumph aroused the King of Prussia and the
Emperor of Austria, and the enheartened allies were
victorious at Leipzig in October 1813. This “Battle of
Nations” could have been decisive, but Alexander wanted no
peace until he reached Paris. He entered Paris triumphantly
in March 1814. Napoleon abdicated, and the Tsar reluctantly
accepted the restoration of the Bourbons, for whom he had
little esteem, and imposed a constitutional charter on the
new ruler, Louis XVIII. Alexander showed his generosity
toward France, alleviating its condition as a defeated
country and protesting that he had made war on Napoleon and
not on the French people.
He had become the most powerful sovereign in Europe and
the arbiter of its destinies, as he had wished. He inspired
the convening of the greatest international congress in
history in Vienna, in the autumn of 1814. It was a time of
sumptuous feasts and also of diplomatic intrigues and bitter
quarrels. The Tsar’s allies, whom he had saved, now feared
his power and opposed the annexation of Poland to Russia. It
was his only claim in reward for what he had done, and he
was determined to achieve it.
When Napoleon returned from his exile in Elba and
regained the throne, the war resumed, ending with his final
defeat by the allies at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Again the
victorious sovereigns met in Paris to frame a peace treaty,
and once again Alexander intervened on behalf of France.
The final decade.
This period marked a turning point for the Tsar. Since the
invasion of his country, he had become religious; he read
the Bible daily and prayed often. It was his frequent visits
with the pietistic visionary Barbara Juliane Krüdener in
Paris that turned him into a mystic. She considered herself
a prophetess sent to the Tsar by God, and, if her personal
influence was of brief duration, Alexander nevertheless
retained his newly found evangelical fervour and came to
profess a nondogmatic “universal religion” strongly
influenced by Quaker and Moravian beliefs.
Alexander obtained Poland, set it up as a kingdom with
himself as king, and gave it a constitution, declaring his
attachment to “free institutions” and his desire to “extend
them throughout all the countries dependent on him.” These
words awakened great hopes in Russia, but, when the Tsar
returned home after a long absence, he was no longer
thinking of reform. He devoted his entire attention to the
Russian Bible Society and to an unfortunate innovation, the
military colonies, by which he attempted to settle soldiers
and their families on the land so that they might enjoy more
stable lives. These ill-conceived colonies brought great
suffering to Russian soldiers and peasants alike.
After the Second Treaty of Paris, Alexander I, inspired
by piety, formed the Holy Alliance, which was supposed to
bring about a peace based on Christian love to the monarchs
and peoples of Europe. It is possible to see in the alliance
the beginnings of a European federation, but it would have
been a federation with ecumenical, rather than political,
The idealistic Tsar’s vision came to a sad end, for the
alliance became a league of monarchs against their peoples.
Its members—following up the congress with additional
meetings at Aix-la-Chapelle, Troppau, Laibach (Ljubljana),
and Verona—revealed themselves as the champions of despotism
and the defenders of an order maintained by arms. When a
series of uprisings against despotic regimes in Italy and
Spain broke out, the “holy allies” responded with bloody
repression. Alexander himself was badly shaken by the mutiny
of his Semyonovsky regiment and thought he detected the
presence of revolutionary radicalism.
This marked the end of his liberal dreams, for, from then
on, all revolt appeared to him as a rebellion against God.
He shocked Russia by refusing to support the Greeks, his
coreligionists, when they rose against Turkish tyranny,
maintaining they were rebels like any others. The Austrian
chancellor, Prince Metternich, to whom the Tsar abandoned
the conduct of European affairs, shamelessly exploited
Alexander’s state of mind.
After his return to Russia, he left everything in
Arakcheyev’s hands. For Alexander, it was a period of
lassitude, discouragement, and dark thoughts. For Russia, it
was a period of reaction, obscurantism, and struggle against
real and imagined subversion. Alexander thought he saw “the
reign of Satan” everywhere. In opposition, secret societies
spread, composed of young men, mostly from the military, who
sought to regenerate and liberalize the country. Plots were
made. Alexander was warned of them, but he refused to act
decisively. His crown weighed heavily on him, and he did not
hide from his family and close friends his desire to
The Empress was ill, and Alexander decided to take her to
Taganrog, on the Azov Sea. This dismal, windy townlet was a
strange watering place. The royal pair, however, who had
been so long estranged, enjoyed a calm happiness there. Soon
after, during a tour of inspection in the Crimea, Alexander
contracted pneumonia or malaria and died on his return to
The Tsar’s sudden death, his mysticism, and the
bewilderment and the blunders of his entourage all went into
the creation of the legend of his “departure” to a Siberian
retreat. The refusal to open the Tsar’s coffin after his
death has only served to deepen the mystery.