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Monday, October 17, 2005

Alexander I

by Linda DeLaine

Alexander I (Alexander Pavlovich) was born on December 12, 1777. He was the eldest son of Paul I and reigned as Emperor of All Russia from 1801 to his death in 1825. Like most of Paul I's children, Alexander was raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great. Upon the murder of Paul I (March 12, 1801), Alexander was crowned in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow (September 5, 1801). Alexander died on November 19, 1825, in Taganrog and is buried at Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg. Alexander I was succeeded by Nicholas I.

Alexander I endeavoured to restore much of the grandeur that was enjoyed during the reign of Catherine, relaxed the laws on censorship and travel which had been implemented by Paul I. Alexander took measures to improve the lives of the serfs and even undertook measures for freeing them from their landlords. This policy was not widely enforced or practiced, though.

Military action, during Alexander's reign, included feuding with Persia (1804 - 15) and Turkey (1806 - 12). These hostilities resulted in the annexation of Georgia. Russian troops proved superior and took away much of the Caucasus from the Persians. Bessarabia and a portion of the eastern Black Sea area was taken from the Turks. Battles against Sweden (1808 - 09) resulted in Russian acquiring Finland in its entirety.

Alexander's early battles with France proved to be much less successful. Realizing his heavy losses, Alexander and Napoleon fashioned a treaty at Tilsit (July 1807) which was born out of their mutual distaste for Britain. Alexander beguiled Napoleon with his charm and performance as an admiring, fellow emperor. He gave in to all of Napoleon's conditions and promised to cut off all relations and trade with Britain. Alexander agreed to acknowledge the Grand Duchy of Warsaw which was created from a section of Poland which had been given to Prussia during the Partition of 1795. Napoleon, in return agreed to allow Alexander to continue his expansion efforts, but at the expense of Turkey and Sweden.

The treaty at Tilsit bought Alexander a five year period of relative peace with France and the ability to concentrate on domestic matters. His focus was on education and the creation of the elite Lycee at Tsarskoye Selo where many literary greats, including Pushkin, were instructed. The most ambitious undertaking of this period was the first attemp at the writing of a Russian constitution. The preliminary document was fashioned by Mikhail Speransky, in 1809. Speransky was a cleric who believed in the monarchy as well as society's participation in its government. This seemed like a prime opportunity for dramatic and positive reform. However, Alexander did not act swiftly or aggressively enough and those opposing such change managed to have Speransky ousted (1812), accusing him of being a Francophile.

Tensions were building between Russia and France. Napoleon was anxious to achieve a significant prize in his expansion efforts. He justified his attempt to take Russia by setting himself up as a self-proclaimed liberator of the Russian serfs. In June of 1812, Napoleon and his army of roughly 500,000; mostly conscripted Poles; marched into Russia by way of Iovno, Studenka, Vyazma and Borodino. The French army greatly outnumbered the Russian troops and both suffered considerable losses at the indecisive battle at Borodino. Alexander and the Russian people realized that Moscow could not be effectively defended. But, they had no intention of giving in or surrendering.

When Napoleon got to Moscow, he found the city abandoned, burned and void of supplies. It was September, 1812. The peasant uprising Napoleon had expected did not materialize. Without the support, in the form of rations, from the peasantry, Napoleon's army could not survive for long. The French were forced to leave Moscow and head for home. The set out in October, unaware of the brutality of the Russian winter. Starvation and disease ravaged Napoleon's, so called, Great Army, and only about 20 percent of the original compliment of soldiers made it back to France. Napoleon's retreat was via Maloyaroslavets, Krasnoy and Borisov. He was clear of Russia soil by December, 1812.

Not willing to let the matter be, the Russian army pursued Napoleon and, in 1814, occupied Paris. Interestingly, the French word, bistro, comes from this time and the Russian word, bystro, meaning quick. The events of 1812 are known to Russians as ote-chestvennaya voyna or the Fatherland War (not to be confused with the Patriotic War in which Hitler was expelled from Russian in 1941).

As a result of this Russian victory, Alexander I was given the title of blazhenny or the Blessed. This implied that he was a living saint who enjoyed divine approval and guidance. Alexander was still rather interested in a constitutional government. However, his new-found status in the eyes of the people, led him to put his energy into creating the Holy Alliance.

The Holy Alliance of 1815 was an agreement between the emperors of Russia, Austria and Prussia. Out of gratitude to God for the downfall of Napoleon, these rulers vowed to reign with the Christian attributes of peace, justice and love. They declared that Christian morals had a place in public life and government. They vowed to treat each other as brothers, not to wage war against each other and to acknowledge Christ as the only Lord of the nations. Prince Klemens Lothar Wenzel Von Metternich, and Austrian statesman, was the architect of the Alliance. He encouraged the Alliance's ideal of a Europe free of revolution and that political alliances should be formed to maintain such a peace.

Alexander endorsed the idea of a Congress System which attempted, through political alliances, to crush any and all rebellions. He proposed an international army for the purpose of law enforcement. The Alliance partners voted him down. Alexander had lost much of his interest in domestic issues. He believed that his efforts in international politics were ordained by the Divine. A second constitution was drafted by Nikolai Novosiltsov, but Alexander showed minimal support. His previous interest in the liberation of the serfs all but disappeared. Some liberation took place, during Alexander's reign, in the Baltic regions. Those serfs freed from their landlords were done so without the benefit of a grant of land.

Alexander died on December 1, 1825, of a fever in the southenr port of Taganrog. There is considerably mystery surrounding Alexander's demise. Legend has it that he did not die, rather became a wandering monk known as Fyodor Kuzmich. Alexander disappeared or died without a son. By law, the crown would have gone to his brother, Constantine. Years earlier, Constantine had married a Polish lady and gave up his rights to the Russian throne. Alexander and declared, in secret, that his youngest brother, Nicholas, should be his heir.

The confusion of who should sit on the throne of Russia led to an attempted coup d'etat and the birth of the Decembrists. Nicholas I successfully put down this revolt and was crowned Emperor on August 22, 1826.