Russian Tsar Alexander II became heir
to the throne
at the age of six, and a few days later witnessed the Decembrist
uprising which sought to put his uncle Constantine on the throne of Russia
instead of his father Nicholas I
. After this, both Nicholas and his young son tended to emphasize strength
and want to involve the boy in military
matters; he received honorary rank
s in the Russian Guards throughout his childhood. His tutors tried to take Alexander in other directions and make him an intellectual
, and Alexander did receive a very well-rounded education, but they could not completely get rid of the Russian royal traditions of princes appearing in uniform in military parades (though letters from the tutor
ing these appearances are preserved.)
Alexander grew up to be charming and polite, but had difficulty concentrating on particular subjects. As a young man he was not particularly interested in politics. He traveled throughout Russia and Europe and met a princess of Hessen-Darmstadt who he fell in love with and eventually married, and Maria and he were very happy together, eventually having seven children.
Alexander succeeded his very conservative father during a time of dissent. Russia was losing the Crimean War; the city of Sevastopol fell to the forces allied against Russia in August 1855 and the country was no longer much of a force in European diplomacy as it had been for over a century. Before becoming Emperor, Alexander had not exhibited any desire to reform things, but after signing the Treaty of Paris in 1856, he lifted his father's censorship laws, expanded trade with other countries, and allowed the formation of corporations and joint-stock companies.
He also put together the Secret Committee on Peasant Affairs. Several plans had already been submitted to him to free the serfs on Russian estates from their unbreakable ties to their master's land, but none were satisfactory. Alexander wanted the nobility to free the serfs on their own, but nobles mostly had no interest in giving up free labor without any compensation. Alexander tried to emancipate peasants on royal land in 1858, but the freed received no land to farm, and this was essentially depriving them of their livelihood. In 1861, he finally signed a decree freeing the serfs and giving them land, but requiring them to pay "redemption" payments to the former landowners as compensation. These payments were an attempt to pacify the nobility, but the amount was generally too high for the peasants to afford without starving themselves. So although he was called the "Tsar-Liberator," the peasants were really free in name only.
In general, Alexander's reforms were implemented by the absolute power of the monarch; he refused any plans for government that contained a constitution or a representative body for Russia. He did allow Finland, a Russian subject at time, a parliament, but when Polish leaders rebelled in 1863, he supressed them brutally.
By the late 1860s, Alexander became listless; the head of his Secret Police, Shuvalov, gained great influence over him and some amendments were added to Alexander's former reforms to make them less radical. Alexander did strengthen relations with the United States, and sold the territory of "Russian America," now the U.S. state of Alaska, in 1867. Alexander also did his best to expand Russian territory in Central Asia, keeping the British from expanding north from India. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 was also an attempt to expand to the south of Russia and to support other Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans under the Ottoman Empire.
Through Russia won this war militarily, its financial cost was very unpopular within Russia, and several attempts were made on Alexander's life in the following few years. He also upset his family and some nobles by remarrying forty days after his first wife's death in 1880 and elevating his new wife to the rank of "Her Highness." Legend says that he may have intended to abdicate in favor of his son and take his new wife to live someplace on the Mediterranean.
On March 1, 1881, Alexander went out for a drive. Supposedly his wife begged him not to go, and Alexander joked that a fortune-teller had told him he would die in the seventh attempt on his life; if someone tried to kill him today it would only be the sixth time. Out on the road, a bomb was thrown at his carriage and missed, wounding some bystanders. Alexander got out of the carriage to see how they were and was hit by a second bomb. He died shortly thereafter from loss of blood. His son Alexander III became emperor.
Sources: Donald Raleigh and A.A. Iskenderov's The Emperors and Empresses of Russia: Rediscovering the Romanovs and those listed in Monarchs of Russia.