Alexander I (1777-1825) was emperor of Russia from 1801 to 1825. His leadership in the defeat of Napoleon and his statesmanship at the Congress of Vienna contributed to a rare attempt at massive political reconstruction of Europe.
The eldest son of Czar Paul I, Alexander was born on Dec. 12, 1777. He was removed from the care of his parents and brought up under the careful guidance of his grandmother, Empress Catherine II. His principal tutor was César La Harpe, a Swiss revolutionary who, however, was willing to compromise with czarist absolutism as a means to achieve his end. La Harpe was an ardent disciple of the Enlightenment and instilled in his student a sincere attachment for its philosophy. Alexander did not master the Russian language, but he spoke fluent English and excellent French. He ended his formal education after his marriage to Elizabeth (Princess Louise of Baden) in September 1793.
At the court of Catherine II, Alexander was groomed to become her successor. But at his father's residence in Gatchina, where Alexander was a frequent visitor in the later years of Catherine's reign, he learned the art of warfare according to Prussian style. The exact military drill demanded of the soldiers by Paul I appealed to Alexander. At Gatchina, Alexander befriended Aleksei Arakcheev, who later became a close adviser.
Since the relationship between Catherine and her son Paul was hostile, she attempted to change the succession to Alexander. A letter from Alexander to Catherine in 1796, the year of her death, reveals that he was fully aware of the plan and had approved it. Paul reigned for 5 years. On March 11, 1801, a palace uprising led to Paul's murder, with the collaboration of Alexander. None of the participants in the conspiracy was tried or officially punished, but there is evidence that Alexander never entirely freed himself from the memories of that night.
The succession of Alexander I to the throne brought closer relations between Russia and England. Alexander ordered the recall of the Cossacks that Paul had sent to conquer India, and diplomatic relations were improved. This disturbed Napoleon because in 1801 France was at war with England, and he had made plans to dispatch a French expedition to join the Russian force undertaking the conquest of India. Alexander distrusted Napoleon and resented the unceremonious way in which he dealt with the crowned heads of the German and Italian states. In spite of their differences, a Franco-Russian treaty of amity was signed on Oct. 11, 1801, which called for close cooperation in all matters of common interest and for joint endeavors to keep peace.
In June 1802 Alexander, without consulting the minister of foreign affairs, Count Kochubey, established a personal friendship with Frederick William III of Prussia that lasted through peace and war.
On April 11, 1805, an Anglo-Russian treaty was signed for the liberation of Holland, northern Germany, Italy, and Switzerland from Napoleonic rule. In the ensuing war an Austro-Russian army of 90,000 men commanded by Gen. Mikhail Kutuzov was routed at the Battle of Austerlitz (Dec. 2, 1805). Alexander wept like a child during the retreat.
The war continued until July 1807, when the Franco-Russian treaty was signed at Tilsit. The alliance with France was not popular in Russia, and Mikhail Speranski, Alexander's secretary of state, felt that the Treaty of Tilsit contained practically all the ingredients of a future war between Russia and France. His fears were realized when Napoleon's army invaded Russia in June 1812. The severe Russian winter, however, proved insurmountable and led to disaster for Napoleon. By the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna on June 9, 1815, part of Poland was set up as a constitutional kingdom, and Alexander became its king.
When Alexander became czar, he was expected to initiate far-reaching constitutional and social reforms because of his liberalism. These hopes were nurtured by the early enlightened measures of his regime: the annulment of vexatious prohibitions enacted by Paul, provision for a broad amnesty, liberation of trade, permission to import foreign publications, removal of restriction on traveling abroad, and partial reform of the harsh penal procedure.
At Alexander's request Speranski drew up plans for constitutional reform. He recommended reforms of the government based on the doctrine of separation of powers— legislative, executive, and judicial—all of them, however, emanating from the czar. The right to vote was to be granted to all property owners. Although Speranski favored the eventual abolition of serfdom, he saw the difficulties in achieving emancipation.
Alexander rejected the doctrine of separation of powers, but Speranski did persuade Alexander to create a state council, a body to review laws passed by the emperor, although its decisions were not binding on the Crown. Alexander also approved Speranski's legislation of 1810-1811 for the reconstruction of the executive departments.
Speranski raised the civil service standards and instituted financial reforms. These measures infringed on the privileges of the landowning and bureaucratic classes, and to placate the nobility Alexander dismissed Speranski in 1812.
Alexander created the Holy Alliance in 1815, an agreement between the rulers of Russia, Austria, and Prussia that they would conduct themselves according to Christian principles. The Alliance became a symbol of repression and reaction, and Alexander's policies became more and more conservative.
The fact that Speranski's constitutional reforms were not carried out and that Alexander failed to fulfill his promise resulted in the emergence of organized political opposition in the form of secret societies. This opposition came from members of the upper classes and led to an abortive coup d'etat on Dec. 14, 1825. Alexander I had died on November 19.
Further Reading on Alexander I
The historian Nikolai M. Karamzin, a contemporary of Alexander I, described the achievements of Alexander I in Karamzin's Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia, translated with an analysis by Richard Pipes (1959). Marc Raeff, Michael Speransky: Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772-1839 (1957), is a biographical study with extensive analyses of the political activities and projects of Count Speranski. Evgenii V. Tarle, Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, 1812 (1938; trans. 1942), is imbued with patriotism and often alludes to parallels between the Napoleonic invasion and threatened attack by Nazi Germany.
A good biography of Alexander I is Alan McConnell, Tsar Alexander I: Paternalistic Reformer (1970). Recommended for general historical background is vol. 2 of Michael T. Florinsky, Russia: A History and an Interpretation (1953), the most thorough narrative of prerevolutionary Russian history available in English, which is particularly strong on the 19th and early 20th centuries. Alexander A. Kornilov, Modern Russian History from the Age of Catherine the Great to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1917; trans. 1943), gives an excellent picture of internal policies. The setting of Leo Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace (1868), is the Napoleonic invasion of Russia during the reign of Alexander I.
Additional Biography Sources
Evreinov, Ludmila, Alexander I, Emperor of Russia: a post-Communism reappraisal, New York: Riverrun Press, Calder Publications, 1995.
Hartley, Janet M., Alexander I, London; New York: Longman, 1994.
Troyat, Henri, Alexander of Russia, Napoleon's conqueror, New York: Dutton, 1982.