Emperors & Empresses of Russia
Alexander I

Equestrian Portrait of Emperor Alexander I.
The 1812 War Gallery, Winter Palace (State Hermitage Museum) in St. Petersburg.
Artist: Franz Kruger (1797–1857)

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Born: 23 December [O.S. 12 December] 1777 at St. Petersburg, Russia
His Father: Paul I of Russia
His Mother: Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg

Reign: 24 March 1801 – 1 December 1825
Coronation: 15 September 1801

Spouse: Louise of Baden

Their Children:
Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna (29 May 1799 – 8 August 1800)
Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexandrovna (16 November 1806 – 12 May 1808)

Died: 1 December 1825 at Tagonrog, Russia
Buried: Unknown (believed interred at Peter and Paul Fortress
in St. Petersburg, but his tomb was found to be empty)

Titles and Styles:
His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich of Russia (1777-1801)
His Imperial Highness The Tsarevitch of Russia (1796-1801)
His Imperial Majesty The Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (1801-1825)


Alexander I was the elder son of Emperor Paul I and Maria Feodorovna. Alexander was born on December 23, 1777, in Saint Petersburg. His upbringing was mostly in the hands of his grandmother, Empress Catherine II. She loved her grandson very much and it was her idea to call the boy Alexander after the Russian medieval prince, Alexander Nevsky. Alexander had a Swiss tutor, Frédéric-César de La Harpe, who had a great influence on him and taught him the principles of Rousseau's gospel of humanity. His military governor, Nikolay Saltykov, taught Alexander the traditions of Russian autocracy, while his father taught the boy to combine theoretical love of mankind with practical contempt for humanity.

Alexander I, Paul I, and Catherine II
Artist: Unknown

Alexander also inherited much of his grandmother`s traits. Actually, he was raised by her after she took him from his parents to live with her in Tsarskoye Selo outside Saint Petersburg. Alexander`s parents remained in their residences in Pavlovsk and Gatchina and seldom visited their son. Prominent Russian historian Sergei Klyuchevsky wrote that since his early childhood Alexander felt emotionally torn between his relatives, which could not but affect his personality. Throughout his life Alexander demonstrated dualism in his domestic and foreign policy.

Despite having the best tutors beside him, Alexander failed to receive a good education because of his laziness. He ended his studies in 1793, when Catherine married him to 14-year-old Princess Louise of Baden, who took the name of Elizabeth Alexeievna.

Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Alekseievna
Artist: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun

Knowing about Catherine`s intention to appoint him as her successor, Alexander publicly rejected the throne, saying he would rather travel abroad ‘in private’ to study nature and make friends. The death of Catherine in November 1796 brought his father, Paul I to the throne. After that Paul appointed Alexander as Military Governor of Saint Petersburg, as well as the chief of the Semenovsky Life-Guards Regiment and inspector of the national cavalry and infantry. Later Alexander was also appointed Senate Military Department Chairman.

Alexander faced even more difficulties in relations with his father as Paul would constantly doubt his son’s loyalty. Alexander was a fierce critic of his father`s policy. Paul was killed on March 11, 1801. Alexander was deeply affected by his father`s death. Historians still debate Alexander’s role in his father's murder. The most common opinion is that he was let into the conspirators' secret and was willing to take the throne but insisted that his father should not be killed. Alexander's having become Tsar through a crime that cost his father's life would give him a strong feeling of remorse and shame for the rest of his life.

On succeeding to throne, Alexander said he was determined to rule like his grandmother had. He ordered numerous liberal reforms in domestic policy: he set free all those who had been imprisoned under his father`s rule and those 12,000 people who had been sent to exile; he also cancelled corporal punishment and prohibited the use of torture during interrogation.

In 1802 Alexander issued a decree that allowed landlords to free the serfs. Though the conditions of liberalization were rather tough, and very few serfs decided to use their right, the decree earned Alexander the love of common people who praised his sense of justice.

Portrait of Emperor Alexander I standing in front of a bust of his grandmother, Empress Catherine II
Artist: Vladimir Borovikovskiy(1757–1825)

The year 1804 saw the release of the 19th century most liberal Statute on the Censorship. In 1803-1804 the Russian Empire witnessed an educational reform, which allowed access to education for all people, irrespective of their social status. New colleges were founded, one in Yaroslavl, named after industrialist and philanthropist Pavel Demidov, now the Yaroslavl State University, and the famous Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. Alexander`s close aide Mikhail Speransky suggested introducing ministries to replace the outdated Twelve Collegia introduced under Peter the Great. A Council of Ministers under the chairmanship of the Sovereign dealt with all interdepartmental matters.

The State Council was created in order to improve the technique of legislation. The Governing Senate was reorganized as the Supreme Court of the Empire. The new government existed in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Emperor Alexander I was often referred to as ‘the Blessed’ and ‘the Winner’, the second nickname he earned for defeating the Napoleonic army in 1812. But the victory was preceded by a chain of bitter losses.

Having assumed power in 1801, Alexander was going to turn over a new leaf as far as Russian foreign policy was concerned. The new government wanted to see Europe sharing one collective security system, but in 1803 it became clear that a truce with France no longer met the interests of Russia, and after recalling its ambassador from Paris in May of 1804, the country began preparations for a new war against Napoleon.

Alexander opposed Napoleon, describing him as “the oppressor of Europe and the disturber of the world's peace”. However, the Russian Emperor overestimated the capacity of his army, which resulted in losing the Battle of Austerlitz in November of 1805, and the failure was mostly blamed on Alexander`s inability to guide his army in the right direction. The Russian monarch refused to put his signature below the June 1806 peace deal. And only after Russia faced another defeat in the Battle of Friedland in 1807, Alexander gave up. The two Emperors first met on 25 June 1807 in Tilsit. Then Alexander managed to show himself as an outstanding diplomat, and even, as some historians would say, win the French Emperor over. The treaty marked an alliance between the two empires, which regulated their spheres of influence. It became clear later on that the Treaty of Tilsit opened new horizons for Russia rather than France, and thus made it possible for the Russian army to prepare for further confrontation with France. Napoleon saw Russia as his only ally in Europe, first of all – in the war against the British Empire.

In 1808 Russia and France discussed plans for joint invasion of India and possible division of the Ottoman Empire. During the meeting with Alexander in Erfurt in September of 1808, Napoleon confirmed that Finland conquered during the Russo-Swedish war in 1808-1809 belonged to Russia, while Alexander said that France had the right to own the territory of Spain. However, the relations between the two allies were already strained at the time since their imperial ambitions were equally strong: Russia did not like the existence of the Duchy of Warsaw (a Polish state established by Napoleon I in 1807 from the Polish lands ceded by the Kingdom of Prussia). Apart from this, the Continental Blockade of Great Britain did much harm to the Russian economy, not to mention each country`s interests in the Balkans.

Meeting of Emperor Alexander I and Emperor Napoleon in a pavilion set up on a raft in
the middle of the Neman River, 25 June, 1807. Artist: Adolphe Roehn (1780–1867)

In 1810 Napoleon told Alexander I that he would like to marry his sister, Grand Duchess Catherine Pavlovna (who later became Queen Katharina of Württemberg after marrying Crown Prince William of Württemberg in 1816), but the proposal was immediately turned down. The Russian Emperor also signed a neutral trade deal, thus putting an end to the Continental Blockade of Great Britain. Some historians said that Alexander planned to carry out a preventive attack on the Napoleonic army, but after France had clinched an alliance with Austria and Prussia, Russia started preparing for a defensive war. On June 12, 1812, the French army crossed the Russian border, and the war began.

Alexander I learnt the news while in Vilno, and took it not only as a danger to his country but also as a personal insult. Determined not to repeat the mistakes he had made in Austerlitz and Friedland, Alexander quit the army and returned to Saint Petersburg. Until the war was over he did not show any sign of solidarity with Barclay de Tolly, the Field Marshal who commanded the army during the invasion.

However, after Smolensk surrendered, Alexander replaced Tolly with Mikhail Kutuzov, who was much more popular inside the army than his predecessor. After the French army was defeated in 1812, Alexander I returned to his post of Commander-in-Chief Emperor during other foreign campaigns of 1813-1814.

The victory over Napoleon boosted Alexander I’s imperial reputation, turning him into one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe. He saw himself as a liberator of the European nations, whose mission was to prevent further wars and disasters on the continent. He also needed to keep the peace to be able to implement reforms in Russia.

To ensure peace on the continent it was necessary first of all to maintain the status-quo as defined by the decisions of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. In particular, under the agreements reached in Vienna, Russia received the grand duchy of Warsaw and in France, the monarchy was restored. Alexander I insisted on the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in France, which was meant to create a precedent for the establishment of similar regimes in other European countries. In particular, the Russian Emperor managed to talk his allies into supporting his idea of introducing a Constitution in Poland.

To ensure the implementation of decisions reached at the Congress of Vienna Alexander I initiated the formation of the Holy Alliance on September 14, 1815. That alliance prefigured the international organizations of the 20th century. Alexander who was convinced that he had defeated Napoleon thanks to Divine Providence was becoming increasingly religious. According to some sources, Alexander was said to be influenced by the Baroness Barbara Juliane von Krüdener and Archimandrite Fotiy, into mysticism. Alexander took part in the conferences of the Holy Alliance in Aachen (September-November 1818) Troppau and Leibach (October-December 1822). However Russia’s European allies opposed to the growth of Russia’s influence on the continent which eventually led to the split of the Alliance in 1825.

Having boosted his international reputation thanks to the victory over the French army, Alexander made fresh attempts to conduct reforms in Russia after the war.

Tsar Alexander I opens the Diet of Porvoo, in the Grand Duchy of Finland, 1809.
Artist: Unknown

Before the war against Napoleon, back in 1809, the Grand Duchy of Finland had been established, which became an autonomous region with its own parliament. Without the parliament’s approval Alexander could not change the legislation and introduce new taxes on that territory. In May 1815, Alexander I announced granting a Constitution to the Kingdom of Poland. The Constitution envisaged the establishment of a two-chamber parliament, local government and freedom of the press. In 1817-1818, a number of Alexander’s close associates including Alexei Arakcheyev worked on the project of gradual abolition of serfdom in Russia.

In 1818, Alexander I ordered Nikolai Novosiltsev to prepare a draft of the Russian Constitution. The document titled “State Charter of the Russian Empire” envisaged the introduction of a federal form of government and was completed by late 1820-s. Alexander approved the project but its introduction was put off for an indefinite period of time. Alexander often complained to his associates that he did not have proper nor suitable people whom he could appoint as governors. At that time he regarded his earlier ideals as fruitless romantic dreams, completely out of touch with the political reality of the time. The news on the Semenovsky regiment’s uprising in 1820 had a wake-up effect on Alexander. He perceived it as a real sign of a revolutionary outbreak in Russia which required tough measures to prevent. Nevertheless, Alexander did not give up his plans for reforms until 1822-23.

Alexander’s domestic policy after the war of 1812 was very contradictory. His attempts to modernize the Russian state were accompanied by the introduction of a strict “police” regime which was later nicknamed as arakcheyevshchina after Alexei Arakcheyev, one Alexander’s closest associates. Alexander introduced military settlements which he regarded as a way of getting peasants out of serfdom but the introduction of these settlements only aroused hatred in the widest circles of the Russian society.

In 1817, the Ministry of Education was reorganized into the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Education headed by the Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod and head of the Bible Society, Alexander Golitsyn. This led to a total decline of Russian universities and the introduction of strict censorship. In 1822, Alexander I banned the activities of Masonic lodges and other secret societies. He also upheld the Senate’s proposal to allow landlords to send those serfs who committed an offence into exile in Siberia.

In the last ten years of his life Alexander became increasingly religious. According to his contemporaries, the Emperor was gradually immersing himself in mysticism. He often talked to his close relatives about his intention to abdicate and become a hermit. Because of that it was necessary to think about a successor. Alexander’s brother Nicolas was appointed as his legal heir but this decision was kept secret from the public for as long as possible.

In 1825, the illness of Alexander’s wife Elizabeth Alexeievna got worse and the doctors advised her to spend more time in the south where the climate was more suitable. For this purpose the couple picked the southern city of Taganrog on the Azov Sea. Alexander used his trip to the south to also visit the city of Novocherkassk, the Crimea and the St. George Monastery. He personally wanted to investigate the rumors about a possible military coup against him. On his way from Balaclava to the monastery Alexander caught a cold and returned to Taganrog seriously ill. The cold developed into typhus and on December 1, 1825, Alexander died. His wife died a few months later in the town of Belov.

The death of Alexander I of Russia in Taganrog.
Artist: Unknown

The fact that at the time of his sudden death, Alexander I wasn’t old and general good health inspired numerous myths. Most of these legends claim that the Tsar did not die but instead staged his death and an unnamed body was placed into the coffin. Various stories of what happened to Alexander began to spread after his death. According to one legend, he fled on a yacht, which belonged to the British Lord Londonberry, which was waiting for the Russian Emperor in the port of Taganrog. Other legends claim that Alexander went into hiding in the Pochayevsky Monastery, in the caves of Kievo-Pechorskaya Monastery, or at the Sveaborg Fortress, etc.

The most widespread and credible legend says that Alexander went to Siberia and lived there under the assumed identity of the hermit Feodor Kuzmich. At first he settled down in the village of Zertsally and later moved to the estate of a Cossack named Simeon Sidorov, who built a house for him in the backyard. Later he is believed to have lived in the village of Krasnorechenskoye on the land belonging to the peasant Latyshev and eventually settled down four versts (about three miles) away from the city of Tomsk at a hunter’s lodge owned by the merchant Khromov, whose workers built a wooden house for him. During the summer months, the hermit lived in this wooden house and in wintertime he moved to Tomsk, where he lived in Monastyrskaya Street in a small house hidden behind the merchant’s two-store mansion. The mysterious hermit rarely appeared in the streets of Tomsk. Feodor Kuzmich died in 1864.

Feodor Kuzmich.
Artist: Anonymous Tomsk painter, early 19th century

Although there are no documents confirming this legend it could be supported by testimonies from contemporaries and some indirect evidence. The coal heaver from the Emperor’s house who was exiled in Siberia recognized Tsar Alexander I disguised as the hermit Feodor Kuzmich. Alexander was also recognized by a former soldier, who remembered the Emperor from the time of his service at the palace in St. Petersburg. One former state employee also recognized him and even fainted when she heard a familiar voice.

When Feodor Kuzmich was leaving the village of Zertsally he left behind a mysterious monogram in the shape of the letter “A” with a crown above it and a flying pigeon instead of a stripe. The monogram was drawn with a pencil and colored in green-blue and yellow.

Another interesting fact is that the Alexander Column erected by Emperor Nicolas I on the Palace Square in St Petersburg carries an image of an angel with a cross and two-headed eagles without crowns, which allegorically referred to Alexander’s abdication.

There are still many unknown details about the life of Alexander I, such as the causes of his depression in later life, a secret manifesto with regard to his successor, etc. All this makes the figure of Alexander I even more mysterious, but not less significant. Let’s not forget that Alexander I was the man whose army defeated the army of the French Emperor in Russia in 1812.

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