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Alexander II of Russia

Alexander (Aleksandr) II of Russia (Александр II Николаевич) (April 17, 1818 - March 1, 1881) was the Emperor (Tsar) of Russia from March 2, 1855 until his assassination. Born the eldest son of Nicholas I of Russia, Alexander's 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.

Insofar as he had any decided political convictions, he 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.

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.

In 1841 he married the daughter of the grand-duke Louis II of Hesse, Maximilienne Wilhelmine Marie, thereafter known as Maria Alexandrovna. The marriage produced six sons and two daughters.

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

The first year of Alexander's reign was devoted to the prosecution of the war, and after the fall of Sevastopol to negotiations for peace. Then began a period of radical reforms, encouraged by public opinion but carried out with autocratic power. (The rule of Nicholas, which had sacrificed all other interests to that of making Russia an irresistibly strong military power, had been tried by the Crimean War and found wanting. A new system needed, therefore, to be adopted.)

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 play. He moderated, guided and, in great measure, brought to fruition the reform aspirations of the educated classes.

Emancipation of the serfs

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 ukaz (edict). 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 accordingly acquired rights and privileges such as were enjoyed by no other peasantry in Europe.

On March 3, 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published. Other reforms followed in quick succession during the next five or six years: army and navy re-organization; a new judicial administration based on the French model; 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 and the large towns, 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.

For some years Alexander, with his sound common-sense and dislike of exaggeration, held the balance fairly between the two extremes; but long years of uninterrupted labor, anxiety and disappointment weakened his zeal for reform, and when radicalism began to resort to the formation of secret societies and to revolutionary agitation, he 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 ukaz to be prepared creating special commissions, composed of high officials and private personages who should prepare reforms in various branches of the administration.

On the very day on which this decree was signed—March 13, 1881—he fell a 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 some small bombs and died a few hours afterwards. On the site where he wounded the Cathedral of the Resurrection on Blood was erected.

Preceded by:
Nicholas I
List of Russian Tsars Succeeded by:
Alexander III