Tsar Alexander I of Russia

Alexander Pavlovich Romanov (Tsar Alexander I) was the grandson of Catherine the Great. He became Tsar after his father (Paul I) was murdered  and ruled Russia during the Napoleonic Wars.

History is unclear whether Alexander had any active role in the plot which ended the life of his father. Extremely unpopular with Russia’s nobility, Paul I (Catherine the Great’s son whom she intensely disliked) was the victim of a coup five years after his ascent to the Romanov throne.

Alexander became Tsar, in 1801, when he was 23 years old.

Unlike his father, Alexander was popular with his people. So were his reforms which included previously unheard-of events, such as:

  • Relaxing censorship
  • Prohibiting torture
  • Allowing peasants to buy their freedom from serfdom
  • Setting-up a Russian Parliament
  • Providing the country with a constitution.

As Napoleon eyed territorial expansion, throughout Europe, Alexander I and his country initially allied themselves with anti-Napoleon forces. Then Russia and Austria lost the Battle of Austerlitz - known as Napoleon’s greatest victory - during December of 1805.

Two years later, after another major battle loss in Poland, Russia and its leader decided to make peace with Napoleon. It proved to be a disingenuous action (on the part of Napoleon), not to mention very short-lived.

On the 12th of June, in 1812, Napoleon began his attempted conquest of Russia. Napoleon greatly misjudged his own ability, and that of his Grand Army, to subdue Russia (where this war is known as the  “Patriotic War”).

Napoleon also misjudged the Tsar and how he viewed his own responsibilities during Napoleon’s advance toward Moscow. The battles in Russia were more than a war to Alexander I. He viewed the fighting as a battle between good and evil.

As mass carnage continued, including the deaths of French soldiers inflicted with sicknesses like dysentery, September 4th became a pivotal day in 1812. Near the small village of Borodino, about seventy miles west of Moscow, Alexander agreed with his lead general, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, that the two armies would engage. (See Imperial Legend, by Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, at page 42.)

Three days later, on September 7, one of the bloodiest encounters in the history of warfare concluded.  Although a technical “victory” for Napoleon, the Battle of Borodino was catastrophic in its loss of human life for both sides.

After enduring such horrific battles - later made more-famous by Tolstoy in his epic “War and Peace” - Napoleon and his forces had been decimated by December of 1812.

A very difficult Russian winter added to the misery of Napoleon’s soldiers as they made their great retreat from Moscow (which had been largely abandoned before Napoleon and his troops arrived in the capital city, on September 14, 1812).

Hailed as a hero across the European continent, Alexander I made a triumphant entry into Paris two years after Napoleon and his men were forced to leave Russia. It was the highlight of Alexander’s reign as Tsar of all the Russians.

After signing an agreement with Austria and Prussia, during 1815, Alexander planned to continue with reforms in his own country. Life in the vast land had changed, however, and members of the nobility no-longer backed reforms. They did not agree, for example, with returning soldiers’ ideas of more freedom and modernization.

As police control of the country returned, and censorship once-again tightened, unrest returned to Russia. A plan to abolish serfdom was itself abolished, and a constitution was never more than just a draft document.

Nine years to the day after agreeing with Marshall Kutuzov, that Russian soldiers should stop their retreat from Napoleon and do battle near Borodino, Alexander I issued a decree on the 4th of September, 1821.  All non-Russian ships, he said, were forbidden to approach the Pacific coast of North America south of 51 degrees north.

In effect, the Tsar was asserting Russian control over the northwestern coast of America.

Why did he do this? Because he believed that the area was part of Russia’s Empire. After all, the theory went, Russia (who, at the time, owned Alaska) was allowed to exert her proprietary rights over everyone else, including the United States.

John Quincy Adams, as America’s Secretary of State, argued against the Tsar’s edict.  America and Russia resolved their differences, over this issue, in 1824. Then ... forty-three years later ... America purchased Alaska from Russia, in 1867, for the sum of $7.2 million.

By 1825, the Tsar - to use Alexander’s own words - felt “crushed beneath the terrible burden of a crown.” A man who never wanted to be Tsar, Alexander caught a cold during a trip to the south of Russia in the fall of that year. It proved to be an illness from which he could not recover since it ultimately led to a fatal case of typhoid.

After his death - on the 19th of November, 1825, at his palace in the Crimean town of Taganrog - people thought that something else had happened to their Tsar:

  • Did he really die?
  • Maybe he was so overwhelmed with the weight of office that he laid down his burdens and became a monk?
  • Was he really buried at the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg?
  • Was  Feodor Kuzmich, a mysterious hermit who showed-up in Siberia during 1836, really Alexander I?

So persistent were the rumors about what had really happened to the Tsar that, during the early Soviet era, his coffin was opened for inspection during the 1920s.

To the surprise of some, but not all ... the coffin ... was... empty.

In Russian history, Tsar Alexander I is known as “Alexander the Blessed.” A legendary ruler, he led his country to one of her greatest triumphs, against Napoleon, although - to his contemporaries - he was often viewed as an enigma.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jun 05, 2020

Media Credits

This portrait - by George Dawe (1781-1829) - depicts Tsar Alexander I as he appeared, circa 1824. It is currently maintained at Peterhof Palace, near St. Petersburg. Online via Wikimedia Commons.




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