There is a marvelous photograph taken by Yevgeny Khaldei in Bulgaria in 1944. Soviet troops, having just entered the capital of Sophia, are looking in amazement at a monument to Alexander II in the city’s main square. The base of the monument reads, “to the Tsar Liberator.” These young men, having received a Stalin-era Soviet education, undoubtedly found it strange to see a monument to any monarch, to say nothing of one of the Russian tsars, all of whom their official history had put down as exploiters and tyrants. The Bulgarians, it turned out, saw things differently.
Like the man they commemorate, the numerous monuments to Alexander II have been buffeted by the forces of history. On March 1, 1881 the last in a series of terrorist assassination attempts finally succeeded, and a bomb thrown by one Grinevitsky, a member of the People’s Will (Народная Воля), tore the legs off Alexander II. The tsar who had liberated the peasants from serfdom, given Russia trial by jury, introduced a degree of local self-government in cities and villages, greatly relaxed censorship and abolished the brutal injustices of military recruitment and the 25-year term of service, bled to death a few hours later. The country was in shock, and throughout Russia monuments were erected to the fallen tsar. There was a monument in Moscow and a monument in St. Petersburg. There were monuments in provincial cities and even in villages.
When the Soviets took over, all the monuments were destroyed. The amazing Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (храм Спаса на Крови), erected on the spot where the tsar met his doom, was closed (supposedly for restoration) in 1930. It was boarded up and made inaccessible both to the faithful and to those who simply wanted to see its extraordinary mosaics and frescoes. The church was reopened in 1997, and only in recent decades have the memorials to the Tsar Liberator begun to be restored within the former Soviet Union.
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