(1777-1825), Russian Tsar 1801-1825
Alexander I was born in St. Petersburg on 23 December, 1777 and died at Taganrog on 1 December, 1825. He was the son of Paul I and Sophie of Württemberg (Maria Feodorovna), and the grandson of Catherine II. He was handsome – he had the classic profile of his grandmother – and intelligent. From his childhood he was torn between two people who hated each other: his father whom he feared and his grandmother whom he admired, he also remained hidden and was secretive. “It was usual for him to have two ways of thinking about all things,” writes Schilder, and Chateaubriand further explained: “Alexander was sincere when it came to his own humanity, but he was a dissimulator […] in all things related to politics.” As for his upbringing, he inherited deep complications from his father's side, and his education was to be a challenge, to put it mildly, in that whilst he was destined to become an autocratic sovereign in the orthodox religion, in 1784 Catherine II gave him a protestant, free-thinking and profoundly republican tutor, in the form of Frederick-Caesar de La Harpe. Throughout his life, Alexander therefore declared himself to be a “good Republican” and a great liberal!
Deeply shocked by the despotic rule of his father, he befriended Polish prisoners such as Prince Adam Czartoryski, as well as a group of young Russians, including Stroganov, Novosiltsev and Kochubei. They all hoped for the establishment of a liberal constitution in Russia and were passionate about the social contract and the French constitution of 1791. Alexander's powers of persuasion came from an innate personal charm. But his liberalism was essentially an intellectual idea which, faced with the political reality, was not determining enough to make him abandon any of his absolute power. At the time of the plot aiming to overthrow Paul I, Alexander did not oppose obtaining his father's abdication by force, provided his life be spared. However, during the night of 23-24 March, 1801, Paul I was eventually strangled to death. This was profoundly shocking to Alexander, who felt like he had committed both patricide and regicide in the face of the world. “I cannot fulfil the duties imposed upon me: how will I find the strength to reign with the constant memory that my father was murdered?” he cried to his wife Elisabeth Alexeievna (née princess Louise of Baden), whom he married in October 1793. But Pahlen abruptly told him that he had “cried enough as a child, it was now time to reign as a sovereign!”
The change of regnant aroused popular enthusiasm and the hope of a less tyrannical government. In his first manifesto, Alexander I declared that he wanted to rule “in the spirit and according to the heart of his grandmother” Catherine II, which resulted in a series of ukases (edicts): on 25 March, 1801, former officers and officials were reinstated; on 26 March, exports were once again allowed; on 27 March, an amnesty was granted to political prisoners and detainees, and the nobility recovered their right to elect judges; on 29 March, local institutions suppressed by Paul I were restored; on 31 March, the excessive powers granted to the police were restricted; on 3 April, the borders were reopened to travellers; on 12 April, books could once more be imported freely; on 14 April, the 1785 Charter of the nobility, local regulation and the promise not to create new taxes were restored; also on the 14th, the secret Office of Political Affairs was abolished; from 3 June, the clergy were made exempt from corporal punishment. Finally, Alexander restored their rights to all those who had been repressed by Paul I. One of Catherine's closest aides, Trotchinski, suggested replacing the provisional Council of the Empire with a permanent council (11 April, 1801) made up of twelve members appointed by the Tsar and who were responsible of reviewing drafts of laws. The sovereign created and chaired a new secret committee, the “Committee of Friends”, which had a slight “Jacobin” mindset and included his friends: Stroganov, Novosiltsev, Kochubei and Czartoryski. Meanwhile, he created a much more conservative council, including General Uvarov, Prince P.M. Volkonsky, Count Komarovsky and Prince P.P. Dolgoruky, which allowed him to maintain his contact with the high nobility.
On 17 June, 1801, Alexander asked the two Committees to consider the restoration of the Senate, as it had been under Peter the Great, as well as reforming State institutions. The “Friends” wanted an British or Swedish-style constitution, whilst the senators wished to control part of the power themselves. In fact, the two committees were, however, united in deciding that Russia was not yet ready for liberal reforms. However, under proposals from the “Committee of Friends”, the legislative power belonged to the Emperor, who would be assisted by a Council of ministers yet to be created which replaced the Collegia. The Senate would control the administration and justice. For their part, the senators wanted to control and manage all administrative power, as well as have authority over ministers and the right of remonstrance over the Tsar on the subject of laws. The reform projects at the beginning of the reign led to the creation of the ukase of 20 September, 1802, according to which the Senate would control the justice and the legality of administrative acts and could exercise remonstrance, but only for previously existing laws. Eight ministries were created under the sole responsibility of their incumbents, and in this way Collegia solidarity was removed. The ministers could directly submit legislative proposals to the Tsar. Alexander, also concerned by the serious problem of serfdom, wanted to improve the serfs' life by making it illegal to sell them without land. Only the announcements of these sales was able to be banned (ukase on 9 June, 1801) due to opposition from the nobles, but the Tsar still managed to grant ordinary people the right to buy their own land without serfs (ukase of 24 December 1801). Pursuing his ideas, Alexander, in a ukase on 4 March, 1803, created the condition of “free farmer”. Nobles were invited to free their serfs who would then buy a parcel of land granted to them. But the nobility were hardly ever to make use of this option. Only 47,000 “free farmers” (including 13,000 by Prince Alexander Nikolayevich Golitsyn) – a little more than 0.5% of the serf population – were freed in this way throughout the whole of Alexander I's reign.
After Friedland and the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon (July 1807), the “Committee of Friends” fell apart as all its members were anglophiles. Alexander, who needed time to rebuild his armed forces, found in Speransky, the son of a village priest, a remarkable statesman to keep Napoleon at bay with. Speransky was also charged with establishing a new draft constitution in 1809 which would turn the government from autocracy to liberalism, founded on a system of legislative power coming from the people: a Council of members, the State Douma, to represent legislation, a Council of Ministers for executive matters, and the Senate for justice, including the rule of separation of powers. On 13 January, 1810, a State Council was established, led by Speransky, who was appointed secretary of State. In 1811, the ministers were also reorganised. But the anti-French reaction of the Russian ruling class prevented Speransky from carrying out his reforms and he was disgraced in March 1812.
While he was playing a double game with Napoleon, Alexander was concerned by France's military power. Anxious, he turned to the religion offered by his close friends, A.N. Golitsyn and R. Kochelev, who were both profoundly mystical. During the German Campaign in 1813, Alexander visited important communities of Moravian Brethren in Herrenhut and Gnadenfrei and, in 1814 he went to London to make contact with the Quakers. In December 1814, increasingly mystical, the Tsar delivered a note to all the members of the Congress of Vienna, in which he affirmed that the “unchanging principles of the Christian religion common to all [should be] the sole basis of the political order, as well as for the social order”. Furthermore, after the definitive fall of Napoleon and the creation of the Holy Alliance (26 September, 1815), he granted a constitution to Finland (seceded by Sweden) and Poland, where serfdom had been abolished by the Emperor of the French. He opened the Russian borders to mystics from German Switzerland, Alsace and Baden-Württemberg; more than 30,000 came and were shipped to the shores of the Black Sea. Alexander abolished serfdom in places where the nobles were the most understanding, such as in the Baltic provinces: on 23 May, 1816 in Estonia, on 25 August, 1817 in Courland and on 26 March, 1819 in Livonia. In 1818, he instructed Novosiltsev to write a liberal draft constitution which was called the Fundamental Charter of the Russian Empire, but it remained a dead letter. The same year, he asked Paul I's friend, General Arakcheyev, to whom he was also associated, to plan a Charter for the progressive freedom of serfs, which would also remain ineffective.
Together with Arakcheyev, Alexander instead launched an era of despotism, creating “military colonies” at the borders in order to redeploy farmers in a military fashion, with the intention of leaving the soldiers with their family, reducing State expenditure and creating a zone of strategic protection. These “settlements” represented almost a third of the army and were real training camps of inhumane discipline. At the same time, and paradoxically, with his entourage of mystics, including Golitsyn (now Minister of Religious Affairs and of Public Education), the Tsar began a policy of religious revival. On 18 March, 1817, he wrote the “Constitution of the Churches”, which raised various protestant churches to the rank of State churches and, on 27 October, 1817, he officially recognised the Moravian Brethren; finally, he allowed Golitsyn to recruit German catholic priests for the edification of the faithful in St Petersburg. All these measures turned the orthodox clergy against him, as well as the police, who saw in the sects a hidden complicity with the secret societies. The Tsar was also forced to expel the Jesuits in February 1820, and to face the rebellion of the Semenovsky regiment. At the instigation of the monk Photius, coming from the orthodox clergy, Alexander decided to ban all secret societies (August 1822), broke away from his liberal Minister Capo d'Istria and finally dismissed his friend Golitsyn (May 1824).
Alexander I's foreign policy found itself dependant on his conflict with Napoleon (1801-1813), then was determined by the desire for armed peace (1815-1825). Upon his accession, he restored peace with Britain, and in October 1801, concluded a secret agreement with Bonaparte, which resulted in the peace Treaty of Lunéville. In June 1803, Talleyrand even suggested that both Russia and France carry out a common intervention in the Orient and share Turkey between them. But Alexander refused as he considered Turkey to be “a natural enemy as well as a guarantee of peace”. He then turned to Britain to bar the road to France in its expansionist aims. Krüdener, the Russian ambassador in Berlin, wrote to Kochubei on 6 March, 1802 and said: “It seems top me that every cabinet must now exclusively prioritize their policy with regards to containing France. […] France will reach us one day […] and will force us to fight not for more or less influence in Europe, but for our own homes!” After Bonaparte was made First Consul for life, Alexander himself wrote to La Harpe on 19 July, 1803: “He preferred to mimic European Courts, at the same time violating his country's constitution”. From then on, Russia was to form and anti-French coalition with Britain and Austria. A mirage of freedom was used against Napoleon, recently become Emperor (December 1804), to gain the sympathy of the people, and the threatened Turkey's integrity was guarantied.
After the Austrians had set off the hostilities, the French seized Ulm and marched against them. The Russians arrived tired in Moravia, and Napoleon crushed them in Austerlitz (2 December, 1805). This French victory brought up the question of reconstituting Poland and mainting Turkey. The latter, under pressure from Napoleon, who blocked off the straits to the Russian fleet, forced Alexander to declare war on him. For their part, Prussia suffered severe defeats at Auerstaedt and at Jena, which led the French army close to the Russian borders. Alexander; associated to the King of Prussia by a secret treaty, sent his troops to the king's aid; they were stopped at Eylau (8 February, 1807) then defeated at Friedland (14 June, 1807). Napoleon and Alexander met at Tilsit and signed a peace treaty (7 July, 1808). The Tsar was forced to accept the reduction of Prussia's position, the constitution of a grand-duchy of Warsaw and the continental blockade against Britain. In order to manage the uprising in Spain, Napoleon needed Alexander's help to monitor Austria. The meeting at Erfurt (September-October 1808) revealed the Tsar's spirit of resistance: “You are violent, I am stubborn […] let us talk or I am leaving,” he said to Napoleon.
As Alexander had refused to assist Napoleon against Austria, this German nation decided that the time had come to open hostilities against France in April 1809, which led Napoleon to Vienna after the difficult victory at Wagram (July 1809). The fragility of this peace encouraged Alexander to openly show his opposition to the reconstitution of Poland in August 1809, and in September, after a campaign against Sweden, he seized Finland. In May 1812, the Tsar made peace with Turkey, whilst his relations with the Emperor of the French were becoming increasingly fragile.
Against the French invasion in 1812, Alexander I displayed unwavering determination in the face of all challenges: “I put my hope in God, in the admirable character of our nation and in the perseverance which I intend to adopt in order not to bend under the yoke”, he writes. After Napoleon's defeat, which whom he refused to negotiate, from Warsaw Alexander appealed to the people of Europe to fight for their freedom. He formed an alliance with Prussia in 1813 and finally with Austria, observing, victorious, the battle of Leipzig and the loss of Germany by the French. In March 1814, by the Treaty of Chaumont, he urged his allies not to sign a single peace treaty with Napoleon who, defeated, was forced to abdicate. The Tsar, favourable to a congress which was to take place in Vienna to decide the reorganisation of Europe, wanted it to be founded on Christian precepts. Napoleon's return, the “hundred-days” and the new French campaign marked the end of the Empire. Alexander create the Holy-Alliance (September 1815) with the King of Prussia and the Austrian Emperor, in order to install a new Christian era for the good of the people. He was encouraged by the entreaties of the mystic baroness Julie de Krüdener.
Following these provisions and the covenants of the Quadruple-Alliance (November 1815), Alexander began a policy of consultation between allies which led him to Aachen in 1818 (end of the occupation of France), to Troppau (1820) to settle the revolution in Naples, to Laybach (1821) to subdue the rebellion in Turin, then the insurrection of the Greeks and finally to Verona (1822) to repress the rebellion in Spain. The various rebellions, the murders of his friend Kotzebue and of the Duke de Berry, and above all Metternich's persistent and pervasive activity, who if necessary even produced false papers to prove to him the existence of a revolutionary central committee in Paris, all led him to react. Whilst the Turks had massacred orthodox Christians and had tried to drown the Greek uprising in blood, the Tsar, against the deep aspirations of the Russian people, abstained from declaring war on Turkey and from helping “his orthodox brothers”. In 1825, as he was just preparing to travel to Crimea, the Tsar was informed of a plot against the throne, to which he replied: “It is not up to me to take action!” He died of a malign fever in Taganrog, at the beginning of December 1825. Rumours have it that he survived under the name of Staretz Kuzmich in Siberia, but there has been no evidence to confirm it. His successor was not his eldest brother Constantine (who refused the crown), but rather his second brother, Nicholas I.
Author: Francis Ley, trans. L.S.
Dictionnaire Napoléon, 1999, Fayard
Reproduced and translated with the authorisation of Editions Fayard. All rights reserved.