Alexander II of Russia

Alexander II of Russia
Alexander II
Alexander II by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1870 (The Di Rocco Wieler Private Collection, Toronto, Canada)
Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias
Reign 2 March 1855 – 13 March 1881 (&1000000000000002600000026 years, &1000000000000001100000011 days)
Coronation 7 September 1855
Predecessor Nicholas I
Successor Alexander III
Consort Marie of Hesse and by Rhine
Grand Duchess Alexandra Alexandrovna
Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich
Alexander III of Russia
Maria, Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich
Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich
Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich
Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich
Full name
Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov
House House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov
Father Nicholas I of Russia
Mother Alexandra Fyodorovna (Charlotte of Prussia)
Born 29 April 1818(1818-04-29)
Moscow Kremlin, Moscow
Died 13 March 1881(1881-03-13) (aged 62)
Winter Palace, St. Petersburg
Burial Peter and Paul Cathedral
Religion Eastern Orthodox

Alexander II (Russian: Александр II Николаевич, Aleksandr II Nikolaevich) (29 April [O.S. 17 April] 1818, Moscow – 13 March [O.S. 1 March] 1881, Saint Petersburg), also known as Alexander the Liberator (Russian: Александр Освободитель, Aleksandr Osvoboditel') was the Emperor of the Russian Empire from 3 March 1855 until his assassination in 1881. He was also the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland.


Early life

Born in 1818, he was 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 ultimate potential; until the time of his accession in 1855, aged 37, few imagined that he would be known to posterity as a leader able to implement the most challenging reforms undertaken in Russia since the reign of Peter the Great. The kings that are listed in this section are among the best that empire had ever seen.

In the period of his life as heir apparent the intellectual atmosphere of Saint Petersburg was unfavourable to any kind of change: freedom of thought and all forms of private initiative were being suppressed vigorously. Personal and official censorship was rife; criticism of the authorities was regarded as a serious offence. Some 26 years after he had the opportunity of implementing changes he would, however, be assassinated in public by the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) terrorist organisation.[1]

His education as a future Tsar was carried out under the supervision of the liberal romantic poet and gifted translator Vasily Zhukovsky,[2] grasping a smattering of a great many subjects, and becoming familiar with the chief modern European languages. His alleged lack of interest in military affairs detected by later historians could have been only his reflection on the results on his own family and on the effect on the whole country of the unsavoury Crimean War. Unusually for the time, the young Alexander was taken on a six-month tour of Russia, visiting 20 provinces in the country.[3] He also visited many prominent Western European countries.[4] As Tsarevich, Alexander became the first Romanov heir to visit Siberia.[5]


Alexander II succeeded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1855. The first year of his reign was devoted to the prosecution of the Crimean War and, after the fall of Sevastopol, to negotiations for peace, led by his trusted counsellor Prince Gorchakov. The country had been exhausted and humiliated by the war.[6] Bribe-taking, theft and corruption were everywhere.[7] Encouraged by public opinion he began a period of radical reforms, including an attempt to not to depend on a landed aristocracy controlling the poor, a move to developing Russia's natural resources and to thoroughly reform all branches of the administration.

File:Coronation of Czar Alexander II -2.jpg
Painting by Mihály Zichy of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II and the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, which took place on 26 August/7 September 1856 at the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. The painting depicts the moment of the coronation in which the Tsar crowns his Empress

After Alexander became Tsar in 1855, he maintained a generally liberal course. Despite this he was a target for numerous assassination attempts (1866, 1879, 1880). On 13 March [O.S. 1 March] 1881 members of the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) party killed him with a bomb. The Tsar had earlier in the day signed the Loris-Melikov constitution which would have created two legislative commissions made up of indirectly elected representatives, had it not been repealed by his reactionary successor Alexander III.[8]

Emancipation of the serfs

In spite of his obstinacy in playing the Russian autocrat, Alexander II acted willfully for several years, somewhat like a constitutional sovereign of the continental type.[specify] 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. 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 defence and attack.

The existence of serfdom was tackled boldly,[specify] 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 authorised 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.[citation needed] 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.

But 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 to choose between the different measures recommended to him. Should the serfs become agricultural labourers dependent economically and administratively on the landlords, or should they 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.

The architects of the emancipation manifesto were Alexander's brother Konstantin, Yakov Rostovtsev, and Nikolay Milyutin.

On 3 March 1861, 6 years after his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published.

Other reforms

In response to the overwhelming defeat (1856) suffered by Russia in the Crimean War, and to an awareness of military advances implemented in other European countries, the Russian government re-organised the army and navy and re-armed them . The changes included universal military conscription, introduced on 1 January 1874.[9] Now sons of all the "estates" - rich and poor - had to serve in the military.[10] Other military reforms involved setting up an army reserve and the military district system (still in use a century later), the building of strategic railways, and an emphasis on the military education of the officer corps. Corporal punishment in the military and branding of the soldiers as a punishment was banned.[11]

A new judicial administration (1864) - based on the French model - introduced security of tenure.[12] A new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure also came into operation. Reorganisation of Judiciary, to include trial in open court, with judges appointed for life, a jury system and the creation of justices of the peace to deal with minor offences at local level.

Alexander's bureaucracy instituted an elaborate scheme of local self-government (Zemstvo) 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.

Marriages and children

Tsar Alexander II and his wife, Empress Maria, with their son, the future Tsar Alexander III by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky 1870

During his bachelor days, Alexander made a state visit to England in 1838. Just a year older than the young Queen Victoria, Alexander's approaches to her were indeed short-lived. Victoria married her German cousin, Albert of Saxe-Coburg in February 1840. On 16 April 1841, aged 23, Tsarevitch Alexander married Princess Marie of Hesse in St Petersburg, thereafter known in Russia as Maria Alexandrovna.

(Marie was the legal daughter of Ludwig II, Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and Princess Wilhelmina of Baden, although some gossiping questioned whether the Grand Duke Ludwig or Wilhelmina's lover, Baron August von Senarclens de Grancy, was her biological father.  Alexander was aware of the question of her paternity.)

The marriage produced six sons and two daughters:

Alexander had many mistresses during his marriage and fathered seven known illegitimate children. These included:

  • Charlotte Henriette Sophie Jansen (15 November 1844 – July 1915) with mistress Sophie Charlotte Dorothea Von Behse (1828–1886)
  • Joseph Raboxicz
  • Michael-Bogdan Oginski (10 October 1848 – 25 March 1909) with mistress Countess Olga Kalinovskya (1818–1854)
  • Antoinette Bayer (20 June 1856 – 24 January 1948) with his mistress Wilhelmine Bayer

On 6 July 1880, less than a month after Tsarina Maria's death on 8 June, Alexander formed a morganatic marriage with his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgorukov, with whom he already had four children:

  • George Alexandrovich Romanov Yurievsky (12 May 1872 – 13 September 1913). Married Countess Alexandra Zarnekau and had issue. They later divorced.
  • Olga Alexandrovna Yurievskaya (7 November 1874 – 10 August 1925). Married Count Georg Nikolaus of Nassau, Count of Merenberg.
  • Boris Alexandrovich Yurievsky (23 February 1876 – 11 April 1876).
  • Catherine Alexandrovna Yurievskaya (9 September 1878 – 22 December 1959) Her first husband was the 23rd Prince Alexander Alexandrovich Bariatinski, (1870–1910) the son of the 22nd Prince Alexander Vladimirovich Bariatinski, (1848–1909). Her second husband, later divorced, was Prince Serge Obolensky, (1890–1978).

Suppression of separatist movements

At the beginning of his reign, Alexander expressed the famous statement "No dreams" addressed to the Poles who inhabited Congress Poland, Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia and Belarus. The result was the January Uprising of 1863–1864 that was suppressed after eighteen months of fighting.

Hundreds of Poles were executed, and thousands were deported to Siberia. The price for suppression was Russian support for Prussian-united Germany. Years later, Germany and Russia became enemies.

All territories of the former Poland-Lithuania were excluded from liberal policies introduced by Alexander. The martial law in Lithuania, introduced in 1863, lasted for the next 40 years. Native languages, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were completely banned from printed texts, see e.g. the Ems Ukase. The Polish language was banned in both oral and written form from all provinces except Congress Poland, where it was allowed in private conversations only.

Encouraging Finnish nationalism within Russia

The monument to Alexander II "The Liberator" at the Senate Square in Helsinki was erected in 1894, 13 years after the assassination of Alexander II. At that time, Finland was still a Russian grand duchy. The date "1863" refers to the reopening of the Diet of Finland. This monument, expressing the Finns' gratitude to this Tsar, survived unharmed through many later periods of tension and war with Russia under various of its later regimes.

In 1863 Alexander II re-established the Diet of Finland and initiated several reforms increasing Finland's autonomy from Russia including establishment of its own currency, the Markka. Liberation of business led to increased foreign investment and industrial development.

Finally, the elevation of Finnish from a language of the common people to a national language equal to Swedish opened opportunities for a larger proportion of the society. Alexander II is still regarded as "The Good Tsar" in Finland.

These reforms could be seen as results of a genuine belief that reforms were easier to test in an underpopulated, homogeneous country, than in the whole of Russia. They may also be seen as a reward for the loyalty of its relatively western-oriented population during the Crimean war and during the Polish uprising. Encouraging Finnish nationalism and language can also be seen as an attempt to dilute ties with Sweden.

Rule during the Russian-Caucasian War

It was during Alexander II's rule that the Russian Caucasian war reached its climax. Just before the conclusion of the war with a victory on Russia's side, the Russian Army, under the tsar's order, sought to eliminate the mountaineers in what would be often referred to as "cleansing" in several historic dialogues.[13][14]

Assassination attempts

In 1866, there was an attempt on the tsar's life in St. Petersburg by Dmitry Karakozov. To commemorate his narrow escape from death (which he himself referred to only as "the event of 4 April 1866"), a number of churches and chapels were built in many Russian cities. Viktor Hartmann, a Russian architect, even sketched a design of a monumental gate (planned, never built) to commemorate the event. Modest Mussorgsky later wrote his Pictures at an Exhibition; the last movement of which, "The Great Gate of Kiev", is based on Hartmann's sketches.

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

The student acted on his own, but other revolutionaries were keen to murder Alexander. In December 1879, the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), a radical revolutionary group which hoped to ignite a social revolution, organised an explosion on the railway from Livadia to Moscow, but they missed the tsar's train.

On the evening of 5 February 1880 Stephan Khalturin, also from Narodnaya Volya, set off a charge under the dining room of the Winter Palace, right in the resting room of the guards a storey below. Being late for dinner, the tsar was unharmed; although 11 other people were killed and 30 wounded.


The new monument to Alexander II in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow
The assassination of Alexander II. Drawing by G. Broling 1881

After the last assassination attempt in February 1880, Count Loris-Melikov was appointed the head of the Supreme Executive Commission 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.

On 13 March (1 March Old Style Date), 1881, Alexander fell victim to an assassination plot in Saint Petersburg.

As he was known to do every Sunday for many years, the tsar went to the Mikhailovsky Manège for the military roll call. He travelled both to and from the Manège in a closed carriage accompanied by six Cossacks with a seventh sitting on the coachman's left. The tsar's carriage was followed by two sleighs carrying, among others, the chief of police and the chief of the tsar's guards. The route, as always, was via the Catherine Canal and over the Pevchesky Bridge.

The street was flanked by narrow sidewalks for the public. A young member of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") movement, Nikolai Rysakov, was carrying a small white package wrapped in a handkerchief.

"After a moment's hesitation I threw the bomb. I sent it under the horses' hooves in the supposition that it would blow up under the carriage...The explosion knocked me into the fence."[15]

The explosion, while killing one of the Cossacks and seriously wounding the driver and people on the sidewalk, had only damaged the bulletproof carriage, a gift from Napoleon III of France. The tsar emerged shaken but unhurt. Rysakov was captured almost immediately. Police Chief Dvorzhitsky heard Rysakov shout out to someone else in the gathering crowd. The surrounding guards and the Cossacks urged the tsar to leave the area at once rather than being shown the site of the explosion.

Nevertheless, a second young member of the Narodnaya Volya, Ignaty Grinevitsky, standing by the canal fence, raised both arms and threw something at the tsar's feet. He was alleged to have shouted, "It is too early to thank God".[16] Dvorzhitsky was later to write:

"I was deafened by the new explosion, burned, wounded and thrown to the ground. Suddenly, amid the smoke and snowy fog, I heard His Majesty's weak voice cry, 'Help!' Gathering what strength I had, I jumped up and rushed to the tsar. His Majesty was half-lying, half-sitting, leaning on his right arm. Thinking he was merely wounded heavily, I tried to lift him but the czar's legs were shattered, and the blood poured out of them. Twenty people, with wounds of varying degree, lay on the sidewalk and on the street. Some managed to stand, others to crawl, still others tried to get out from beneath bodies that had fallen on them. Through the snow, debris, and blood you could see fragments of clothing, epaulets, sabers, and bloody chunks of human flesh."[17]

Later it was learned there was a third bomber in the crowd. Ivan Emelyanov stood ready, clutching a briefcase containing a bomb that would be used if the other two bombers failed.

Alexander was carried by sleigh to the Winter Palace to his study where ironically, twenty years before almost to the day, he had signed the Emancipation Edict freeing the serfs. Alexander was bleeding to death, with his legs torn away, his stomach ripped open, and his face mutilated.[18] Members of the Romanov family came rushing to the scene.

The dying tsar was given Communion and Extreme Unction. When the attending physician, Sergey Botkin, was asked how long it would be, he replied, "Up to fifteen minutes."[19] At 3:30 that day the standard (Alexander's personal flag) of Alexander II was lowered for the last time.


The assassination caused a great setback for the reform movement. One of Alexander II's last ideas was to draft plans for an elected parliament, or Duma, which were completed the day before he died but not yet released to the Russian people. In a matter of 48 hours, Alexander II planned to release his plan for the duma to the Russian people. Had he lived, Russia might have followed a path to constitutional monarchy instead of the long road of oppression that defined his successor's reign. The first action Alexander III took after his coronation was to tear up those plans. A Duma would not come into fruition until 1905, when Alexander II's grandson, Nicholas II, commissioned the Duma following extreme pressure on the monarchy as a result of the Russian Revolution of 1905.

A second consequence of the assassination was anti-Jewish pogroms and legislation.

A third consequence of the assassination was that suppression of civil liberties in Russia and police brutality burst back in full force after experiencing some restraint under the reign of Alexander II. Alexander II's murder and subsequent death was witnessed first-hand by his son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, both future tsars, who vowed not to have the same fate befall them. Both used the Okhrana to arrest protestors and uproot suspected rebel groups, creating further suppression of personal freedom for the Russian people.

Finally, the assassination inspired anarchists to advocate "'propaganda by deed'—the use of a spectacular act of violence to incite revolution."[20]

Alexander II and his dog Milord 1870 by Sergei Lvovich Levitsky (The Di Rocco Wieler Private Collection, Toronto, Canada)

Alexander II's dog, Milord

A favorite dog of Alexander II was an Irish Setter named Milord.[21] Contemporaries wrote that Milord was a Black Setter, but now it is understood to have been a Red Setter with black color on the tips of its hair - which gave the dog a black color with a red nuance.[21]

Milord was given to tsar Alexander by a Polish landowner, and was said not to be pure bred. Evidently that fact did not upset Alexander, as it was said that he never parted from the dog - not even for a second.[21]

Many citizens of Saint Petersburg came to know the figure of the tsar - a tall stately man, who frequently walked with his Setter along the lattice of the Summer Garden. Milord was likely the most famous animal in the Russian Empire at that time.[21]

The personal doctor of the tsar Alexander II supposedly also owned an Irish Setter, and when she had a litter, one puppy was given to Russian author Leo Tolstoy - who raised the dog at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana.[21]

In fiction

Alexander II appears prominently in the opening two chapters of Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff (published in 1876 during Alexander's own lifteime). The Tsar sets the book's plot in motion and sends its eponymous protagonist on the dangerous and vital mission which would occupy the rest of the book. Verne presents Alexander II in a highly positive light, as an enlightened yet firm monarch, dealing confidently and decisively with a rebellion. Alexander's liberalism shows in a dialogue with the chief of police, who says "There was a time, sire, when NONE returned from Siberia", to be immediately rebuked by the Tsar who answers: "Well, whilst I live, Siberia is and shall be a country whence men CAN return." [22]

In The Tiger in the Well, Philip Pullman refers to the assassination — though he never names Alexander — and to the pogroms that followed. The anti-Jewish attacks play an important role in the novel's plot.

Oscar Wilde's first play Vera; or, The Nihilists, written in 1880 - Alexander II's last year - features Russian revolutionaries who seek to assassinate a reform-minded Tsar (and who, in the play, ultimately fail in their plot). Though Wilde's fictional Tsar differs from the actual Alexander, contemporary events[which?] in Russia - as published in the British press of the time - clearly[original research?] influenced Wilde.

In nonfiction

Mark Twain describes a short visit with Alexander II in Chapter 37 of The Innocents Abroad, describing him as “very tall and spare, and a determined-looking man, though a very pleasant-looking one nevertheless. It is easy to see that he is kind and affectionate. There is something very noble in his expression when his cap is off. However Mark Twain discovers Alexander II's desire to gain control of North America”[23]


See also

  • Tsars of Russia family tree



  1. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar (Free Press: New York, 2005) pp. 261, 391 & 404-421.
  2. ^ The McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of world biography, vol. 1. McGraw-Hill, 1973. ISBN 978-0-07-079633-1; p. 113
  3. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: the Last Great Tsar, p. 63.
  4. ^ Edvardx Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, pp. 65-69, 190-191 & 199-200.
  5. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, p. 62.
  6. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, p. 107.
  7. ^ Edvard, Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar p. 107.
  8. ^ This Day in History - 13 March 1881,, retrieved 11 November 2009 
  9. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar p. 150.
  10. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, p. 150.
  11. ^ Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar, pp. 150-151.
  12. ^ An Introduction to Russian History (1976), edited by Robert Auty and Dimitri Obolensky, chapter by John Keep, page 238
  13. ^ Y. Abramov,Caucasian Mountaineers, Materials For the History of Circassian People, 1990
  14. ^ Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile, the Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Princeton, NJ, 1995
  15. ^ Radzinsky, Edvard, Alexander II: The Last Great Czar,(Freepress 2005) p. 413
  16. ^ Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, Dell Publishing Company, New York, p.16
  17. ^ Radzinsky, (2005) p. 415
  18. ^ Massie, p.16
  19. ^ Radzinsky, (2005) p. 419
  20. ^ Palmer, Brian (2010-12-29) What do anarchists want from us?,
  21. ^ a b c d e Charcot, Gennadi, "Irish Red Setter In Russia", Irish Red Setter Club, St. Petersburg, 2009
  22. ^ Jules Verne, "Michael Strogoff", Ch. 2
  23. ^ Twain, Mark (1869), The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim's Progress - ch. 37,, retrieved 28 April 2011 

Further reading

  • Moss, Walter G., Alexander II and His Times: A Narrative History of Russia in the Age of Alexander II, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. London: Anthem Press, 2002. online
  • Radzinsky, Edvard, Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. New York: The Free Press, 2005.
  • Edward Crankshaw, Shadow of the Winter Palace : Russia's Drift to Revolution, 1825–1917, Perseus Books Group, ISBN 0-306-80940-0 (0-306-80940-0).
  • On the conquests in Central Asia in the 1860s by people such as General Mikhail Grigorevich Chernyayev, (Cherniaev), (Russian: Михаил Григорьевич Черняев, 24 October 1828 – 16 August 1898), a.k.a. The Lion of Tashkent".
  • Larissa Zakharova , Alexander II: Portrait of an Autocrat and His Times, Softcover, Westview Press, ISBN 0-8133-1491-7 (0-8133-1491-7).
  • Ben Eklof (Editor), Larissa Zakharova (Editor), John Bushnell (Editor), Softcover, "Russia's Great Reforms, 1855–1881", (Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies). ISBN 0-253-20861-0 (0-253-20861-0)
  • Russia in the Nineteenth Century: Autocracy, Reform, And Social Change, 1814–1914, by Alexander Polunow, Thomas C. Owen, Larissa G. Zakharova Softcover, M E Sharpe Inc, ISBN 0-7656-0672-0 (0-7656-0672-0)
  • Pereira, N.G.O.,Tsar Emancipator: Alexander II of Russia, 1818-1881, Newtonville, Mass: Oriental Research Partners, 1983.
  • Charcot, Gennadi, "Irish Red Setter In Russia", St.Petersburg, 2009,

External links

Alexander II of Russia
Cadet branch of the House of Oldenburg
Born: 17 April 1818 Died: 13 March 1881
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Nicholas I
Emperor of Russia
2 March 1855 – 13 March 1881
Succeeded by
Alexander III
Russian royalty
Preceded by
Constantine I of Russia
Heir to the Russian Throne
Succeeded by
Nicholas Alexandrovich

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