The Favoured Grandson
of a Great Russian Empress

Emperor Alexander I

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The following article is part of a programme in the Voice of Russia radio series about the oncoming bicentenary of Russiaís victory in the 1812 war against France.

A subtle hypocrite, an enigmatic sphinx, false as spindrift, - are all the descriptions of one person. Interestingly, the descriptions are both vivid and valid. The person in question is Alexander the First, Russiaís 14th Emperor. Now, let us try to find out why he made his contemporaries think about him this particular way.

He was vested with unrestricted power in such a huge country as Russia, and was, besides, part of a conspiracy against his own father. He did not particularly bother to conceal the fact, but was stung with remorse for this for the rest of his life. At least he claimed that he had repented it. But letís proceed in keeping with the ďone thing at a timeĒ principle.

In 1777, a son was born into the family of the heir apparent to the Russian throne Pavel, or Paul, the son who was baptized Alexander. Interestingly, it was not the parents of the newly-born, but his grandmother, the then Empress of Russia Catherine the Second, who decided on the name. A domineering and forceful woman, as a reigning monarch should be, she took the upbringing of the boy into her own hands at once. She took the infant to her palace without bothering to ask permission from his parents and told them what days they could come to see their baby on. Catherine the Second started creating a future Russian Tsar of her grandson in the image and likeness of Peter the Great, who was by right called ĎGreatí in Russia for his immense services to his country. It was Catherine the Secondís cherished dream to make Alexander a successor to Peterís cause.

It turned out to be that there was nothing human to which the Empress would be a stranger. She became a tender and caring grandmother who would even tell her little darling Alexander her own fairy-tales. But since state affairs took up much of her time nonetheless, she invited the best educated and progressive-minded teachers and tutors from abroad for the boy. But busy as she was, she kept a watchful eye on what and how those people taught her favoured grandson. She also picked a fiancťe for him, - the 15-year old Louise, Princess of Baden. She proved to Alexanderís liking and reciprocated his feeling. Nothing short of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare! Her ceremonial marriage to the 16-year old Alexander took place in 1793. Louise converted to the Orthodox Church and traded her name for Elizabeth Alexeievna. In short, Catherine the Second made all decisions for her darling grandson and watched closely his every move. And small wonder, since he was to replace none other than her own self. It stands to reason to ask about the future of the heir apparent, her son and Alexanderís father Paul. But the point is that Catherine saw Paul as untalented and incapable of ruling the nation. It was therefore her cherished dream to live long enough to be at the helm until her grandson grows up to replace her granny. Unfortunately, this came amiss to her.

Catherine the Second died in 1796 following her 34-year long reign in Russia, when Alexander was only 19. Well, actually he was big enough to lay his claim to the throne. But although Alexander knew that his granny would have loved to see him ascend the throne, he thought it was not right to do that by shoving his father away. But then Paul was not about to move over in favour of his son. Thus it was Paul who became Russiaís 13th Emperor. Further developments proved that the number was quite unfortunate for Paul.

According to historians, Paul was a bad-tempered person, suspicious and nervous. If you take into account the fact that he was, besides, madly passionate about war fighting, you will realize that his temper was nothing short of a volatile cocktail. His favourite thing to do was to hold all sorts of military parades, troop reviews and exercises. Paul saw his motherís ways as too liberal, so when he came to power, he began to implant military discipline and ordered punitive measures to be taken against any freethinking. This clearly triggered discontent in all social layers of Russia, especially among nobility and in the Army, which conspired to assassinate Paul. Part of the plot was his son Alexander, who was also sharply critical of his fatherís policy. In March 1801 the plotters forced their way into the Emperorís office and demanded that he should abdicate. Paul rejected the demand out of hand and was killed. According to official statements, he died of a stroke.

Eyewitnesses claim in their books of memoirs that Alexander was shocked by what had happened. He was certainly aware that a coup was being hatched and was prepared to ascend the throne. But he had never actually agreed to his fatherís assassination. He thought Paul would be arrested as a result of the coup and sent into exile. But things had worked out differently. He had the feeling of guilt for his fatherís death to his last day. Some historians believe it was this that prompted his move 25 years later, a move that is still shrouded in mystery and that we will speak of just a little later.

Anyway, Alexander began to perform the duties of a Russian Emperor on the very next day after his fatherís assassination. He was officially crowned a little later. He was in stark contrast to his father in terms of his conduct and decisions made. He proclaimed in his very first decree that he would rule in keeping with law, and his decisions would be prompted by his heart. No one should expect any arbitrary rule or injustice any more. Alexander did try to stand by his word, although this would not always work out. He specifically tried to be in the limelight and closer to the commons, striking everyone by his unpretentious ways. The new Emperor would often be seen strolling along St. Petersburg streets with no retinue or bodyguards. Besides, he was invariably amiable when bowing back to the greetings of the people who recognized him. It was plain impossible to imagine a situation like this prior to Alexander, since all monarchs would normally travel in gilded carriages, escorted by mounted guardsmen. But, of course, one thing was to impress people with his accessibility, and quite another thing was to settle the intricate government problems that had piled up during his predecessorís rule. Some of those had to do with Russiaís foreign policy. The position and prestige of Russia on the world scene left much to be desired. Relations were especially strained with France, which clearly sought world domination under the then Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Great Britain was the only nation in the way of attaining the objective. Napoleon imposed an economic embargo on Britain and made Russia join him in the effort. But Alexander the First sought to attain his own objectives. He had to take the country out of the feudal system, develop the economy and invigorate trade. The more so since Russia, a country rich in resources, did have what to offer to foreign consumers. So, the Russian Tsar was not really going to abide by the terms of the blockade of Britain that had been imposed on him. But Napoleon, of course, could not stomach this kind of disobedience. The situation was further worsened by the fact that the two Emperors cold-shouldered each other. The relations grew especially strained when Alexander the First objected to Napoleonís marriage to his younger sister, Grand Duchess Anna. Bonaparte took the rejection of his marriage proposal as a terrible humiliation. Franceís war with Russia was therefore predetermined. It only remained to guess about the date it would break out on.

Alexander the First realized that there was no way to avoid the war. So he started bracing himself for it early enough. He was aware of the fact that the Russian Army was weaker than that of France. Napoleon was prepared to commit to action 600,000 troops. Russia could counter the French attack by no more than 200,000. That is why Alexander bent head over heels to delay the breaking-out of the war. He declined his Commander-in-Chief Barklay de Tolliís proposal to deliver a preemptive strike at the French troops to make them feel reluctant to attack Russia ever again. Whatís more, the Emperor ordered his Generals not to respond to likely provocations or otherwise react to moves by the French Army, which had already concentrated on the Russian border. But this could only slightly delay the fighting.

In June 1812 the Napoleon-led troops did invade Russia and began advancing deeper into Russian territory, even though the advance was hard-fought. Alexander the First was naturally outraged at the reports about the Russian Army retreat. But one should do him justice for his enviable forbearance and the unshakable faith that he placed in his military leaders, the valour of his soldiers and the courage of the entire people of Russia. The surrender of Moscow, albeit provisional, made him suffer from an unbearable pain. When the French were finally driven out of Russia, Alexander the First seemed to be the happiest man on earth. He joined the Russian Army and followed at the enemyís heels until Paris.

Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the First became a very influential monarch inside and outside Russia. He was clearly basking in his glory and was obviously a claimant to the title of the most influential politician and statesman in Europe. He effectively carried out several more military campaigns and had largely expanded Russian territory. After that he began to urge other European rulers to give up all war-fighting and concentrate on their countriesí economic development. It was none other than Alexander the First who initiated, in 1815, the setting up of the so-called Holy Alliance of many European leaders. That proved the first international organization of this kind, one that actually became a prototype of the current United Nations Organization. Although, of course, the Holy Alliance lasted for no more than 10 years and then broke up over the insurmountable differences between the participants, as well as due to serious reservations about what they felt was Russiaís excessively increased influence on Europe.

But Alexander the Firstís achievements inside Russia proved far less impressive compared with the spate of successes he had achieved elsewhere. The reforms he launched either failed to be carried out, or proved largely ineffective. Whatís more, his entourage began to grow discontent with his liberal governance. His confidants accused Alexander of romanticism, excessive illusions and unreality. A police regime and censorship were gaining a foothold in Russia. The Emperor had actually forgotten all about his pledge to rule in keeping with law and that his decisions would be prompted by his heart. Alexander grew increasingly pious. He began to retire for a conversation with all sorts of fortune-tellers, monks and elders that appeared from nowhere. Those conversations would eventually play their role in the Emperorís life. When alone with his family, he would increasingly often point out his wish to lay down the sceptre and live the rest of his life in some remote place in wilderness. Besides, he reproached himself increasingly often for having done nothing to save his fatherís life. To find consolation and support, he decided to mend ties with his almost abandoned wife Yelizaveta. Incidentally, the Emperorís family life and his relations with women certainly merit a special mention, so weíll talk about that following a brief pause.

Alexander the Firstís family life was anything but happy, although his relations with his wife began with impassionate youthful love. But love had gradually disappeared into thin air, with only Alexander to blame for it. First of all, state affairs left him with almost no time for the family. Secondly, there was some kind of doom and gloom about their marriage. Alexander and Yelizaveta had two daughters who died when still quite young. One was one year old, the other, - two years old. But there was still another factor that made the spouses pull away from each other. It was surprising that the two did not end up in divorce because of that third reason, namely Alexanderís amorous adventures. Here he was not inferior, if not superior, to his French opposite number, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You may remember that we spoke at length about Napoleonís love affairs in a recent programme. Getting back to Alexander, he enjoyed enormous success with women, and small wonder, since he was a tall slender blond with blue eyes, perfectly educated and boasting a good command of three foreign languages. And an Emperor, to crown it all! Could there be a woman who would ignore his courting or resist his charms? Hardly ever. So, Alexander took full advantage of this. He indulged in an affair with a social lioness Maria Naryshkina just a few years after he married Yelizaveta. Historians claim that the affair lasted for a whole 14 years. She gave birth to two daughters and a son from Alexander. Naturally, she continually demanded that he should divorce Yelizaveta and marry her. But the Emperor just couldnít take it upon himself. In the long run he got sick and tired of her claims and gave her up for another woman. How many love affairs Alexander indulged in is anyoneís guess. The more or less exact figure for his children that were born out of wedlock is 11. His lawful wife Yelizaveta was perfectly aware of her husbandís extra-marital affairs (or at least made a right guess at it). Nonetheless, she forgave him everything and remained his faithful spouse. She would often claim that her love for Alexander was the first and last one in her life. She seemed to know that Alexander would return to her at a rough moment of his life to seek her support. And that was exactly the way that things worked out.

But letís go back to the year 1825, when Alexander the First made up his mind to give up his throne and retire into seclusion. He shared the decision with Yelizaveta. She was gravely ill at the time, but would not hear of travelling abroad for medical treatment. The Emperor then suggested that they both should leave for Taganrog, a city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, in the south of Russia. The climate was a lot healthier there, and the city lacked the metropolitan hustle and bustle. Yelizaveta did not take long to accept. Alexander was the first to leave for Taganrog in early September to have everything ready for his wifeís arrival. Notably, he left almost secretly, without his retinue, which he would normally take along no other occasions. Just several reliable servants that could provide assistance en route, if necessary. Yelizaveta came to Taganrog several days later. It is safe to claim that the two had their second honeymoon there. They again became close to each other, and Yelizavetaís health had largely improved. The family crisis seemed to have been settled. Also, Alexanderís conflicting thoughts and doubts started to subside. But at this very moment, in late October, the Emperor caught cold, and just several days later his doctors grew very much concerned about his condition. They bent every effort to subdue the illness, but failed. Alexander the First passed away on November 19th. He was just 48. Yelizaveta followed him in less than six months. Such was a brief, but very eventful life of the 14th Russian Emperor and his wife. But was it actually over?

It is the death of Alexander the First and his wife (of all Russian Tsars) that is shrouded in mystery to this day. According to an official version, the Emperorís body was taken from Taganrog to St. Petersburg and buried with full state honours in the Peter and Paul Fortress there. But a while later witnesses began to emerge of the events in Taganrog claiming that in the coffin they had seen another manís body, not that of Alexander the First. The man greatly resembled Alexander and had died several days before Alexander did. That manís body was placed in the coffin, which was never allowed to be opened ever after. Then it stands to reason to ask where Alexanderís body was, or did he not die at all? Besides, the sentry who guarded the Emperorís home in Taganrog on that day claimed that he saw a tall man sneak out of the house via the backdoor and quickly walk away. The sentry hailed him, but the man did not respond. But the soldier claimed that he at once recognized the man as Alexander the First. He was quick to report this to his chief, but the officer on duty laughed the report out of court, saying that the sentry must have gone mad, since the Emperor was about to die.

Two versions of the event were popular with the Russians. Some claimed later that no one was buried in the Peter and Paul Fortress, just the coffin, while others insisted that Alexanderís body was replaced with another one at the eleventh hour, and the people who did that disappeared into thin air. But why should anyone have sought to replace Alexanderís body is anyoneís guess.

But let us imagine that Alexander the First did not die in Taganrog. But then, where he went, and why he should have feigned his death is not quite understandable. An answer to the question, or rather, one of the versions of Alexanderís death, transpired several years after the Emperorís announced demise. And it is very mysterious, in all fairness, and therefore just as intriguing today as it was then. So, a monk appeared in Siberian wilderness, one that said that his name was Fyodor. He was pretty tall, of stately posture, with blue eyes, fine-featured and quite handsome. He was, besides, perfectly educated, had a good command of several languages and was thoroughly vested in the subtleties of the St. Petersburg Court etiquette. But most importantly, he greatly resembled Alexander the First. On meeting Fyodor, a retired Army soldier gasped: ďMy, but itís our Emperor Alexander!Ē The breaking news quickly spread throughout Siberia, and monk Fyodor was even arrested. But he would not answer any questions by police who were eventually compelled to release him, since he had done nothing against the law. Fyodor would not speak of his past even when he confessed to a priest. He travelled for several more years across Siberia until he fell gravely ill, in the house of a Tomsk merchant. Just hours before his death, the host asked Fyodor to give his true name. The monk said that this was only for God to know. He died in 1864. Now, if monk Fyodor was Alexander the First, he must have turned 87 by then. In other words, he lived for almost 40 years after his feigned death.

So, perhaps, by acting that unusual way Alexander was trying to make his dream come true, the dream of living the remainder of his life in seclusion. This way he might have been repenting his guilt for his fatherís death. It is true that the unexpected death of Alexander the First in the prime of life, as well as that of his wife Yelizaveta touched off numerous rumours among the people. These were gradually formed into legends. Whether these are in line with reality is still anyoneís guess. Actually, hardly anyone will ever come to know the truth, since the more unsolved mysteries are related to the life or death of a prominent person, especially such a person as a Russian Emperor, the longer the memories of him live on.

Source: Voice of Russia
10 August, 2010