Alexander II: Russia's Czar Liberator

Czar Alexander II (seated on the left) with Czarina Maria Alexandrovna and their children.
On the czarina's lap is the future Czar Nicholas II. Image: Wikimedia

 Alexander II (1818-1881) ruled Russia as its Czar from 1855 to 1881. He was born in Moscow on April 17, 1818, the eldest son of Emperor Nicholas I. He received the traditional education for an heir apparent, which included studies in the humanities, history, statecraft, and military science. In 1841 he married the German princess, Princess Marie of Hesse-Darmstadt, who became known as Empress Maria Alexandrovna. She bore him six sons and two daughters. Alexander was gentle, humane and sentimental. But because he lacked deep convictions or determination, all his official acts were characterized by hesitation and vacillation.

Alexander ascended the throne on Feb. 18, 1855, during the Crimean War, on the death of his father. Conservative and instinctively sympathetic to the authoritarian, bureaucratic system perfected by his father, Alexander was nonetheless shaken by Russia’s disastrous performance in the Crimean War, which revealed the need to reform the administration, stimulate the Russian economy, and end the system of bondage in which three quarters of the Russian people lived. The “Era of Great Reforms” began on Feb. 19, 1861, with the abolition of serfdom, the act that won for Alexander the epithet “Czar Liberator.” This reform was rapidly followed by the changes in the system of governmental finances, issuance of a charter granting a measure of academic freedom to universities, reorganization of the judicial administration, and introduction of local self-government for rural districts and cities. A relatively democratic system of universal conscription and military training was introduced.

The reforms failed to produce the rapid modernization of Russian economy and governmental structure for which many had hoped. The disappointed peasants and radical intellectuals triggered widespread social unrest and eventually were followed by Alexander’s disenchantment with the role of reformer.

The military and diplomatic defeats inflicted on Russia by the Western powers in connection with the Crimean War led Alexander to seek compensation in Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Southern Besarabia was returned and Kars and Ardahan were added to Russia by the treaty that concluded the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878.

On March 1, 1881, the day on which he was to grant modest political concessions, Alexander was assassinated by a bomb thrown by members of a revolutionary terroristic organization. His heir at once canceled the concessions.


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