Catherine the Great’s beloved grandson came to power after the assassination of his father Paul I, a crime he more than likely knew about before it happened. The events that handed him the throne would haunt Alexander I for the rest of his life. Among non-Russians, this idealistic czar—whose reign provided the backdrop for Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace”—is perhaps best remembered for his complex relationship with Napoleon Bonaparte. As a young man, Alexander greatly admired the dynamic French leader, but their relationship soon soured. By 1812 Napoleon’s massive continental army was poised to invade Russia. In what many consider his finest hour, Alexander rallied his people to the defense of the motherland and, with the fortuitous help of the brutal Russian winter, turned back Napoleon’s army before it reached Moscow. The czar then took his troops on a ridiculously long victory march across Europe and arrived in Paris just in time to take part in the 1814 Treaty of Paris, which put Russia at the political center of Europe.
On the home front, Alexander had a far more complicated record. A reformer in the early part of his reign, he soon realized (like other leaders before and after him) that governing the unruly Russian empire was far easier to do with a strong fist. He began to renege on many of his more liberal policies and increasingly withdrew from public life until his death in November 1825. Even in death, the czar proved an enigma: Rumors swirled that he had faked his demise, secretly abdicated and scurried off to live the life of a religious hermit. To this day, many people claim that one of the Orthodox Church’s most famous saints was actually Alexander. This belief was strengthened when Soviet officials opened his grave in the early 20th century and—supposedly, at least—found an empty casket.
Nicholas I (1825-1855)
The ninth child and third son of Paul I, Nicholas I was an unlikely ruler. He had spent his early years in the army, where his cruel, ruthless nature earned him few admirers and many enemies. Alexander I’s sudden and mysterious death in late 1825 left Russia with a succession crisis: Grand Duke Constantine, the heir apparent, had the backing of Russia’s powerful military but little inclination to take on the job, while Nicholas had few supporters. Tensions came to a head in December when a group of army cadets rose up in armed protest against Nicholas’ accession. The new czar brutally crushed the rebellion, known as the Decembrist Revolt, executing many of its leaders and sentencing the rest to the horrors of a Siberian exile.
Things went downhill from there. Nicholas spent the next 30 years rooting out “dissent” wherever he could find it—in the military, in universities, in government and even in the arts. (He had a famously antagonistic relationship with the celebrated poet—and supporter of liberal reforms—Alexander Pushkin.) A secret police force helped him enforce his slogan of “autocracy, Orthodoxy and nationality,” which stressed traditional Russian culture, values and religion at the expense of those perceived as outsiders. Though a strong supporter of the army, Nicholas had mixed results as a military leader. He successfully expanded the Russian empire to more than 7 million square miles, making it the largest it would ever be. But his 1853 attempt to create a Russian Orthodox presence in the Muslim Ottoman Empire led to the Crimean War, a disastrous, demoralizing defeat that highlighted how weak Russia had become under the czar’s reactionary regime.
Alexander II (1855-1881)
It’s an odd quirk of history that a czar as conservative as Nicholas I would have a son so open to reform that he was nicknamed “the Liberator.” Far more educated, worldly and prepared for the job than his father had been, Alexander II moved quickly to extract Russia from the deadly Crimean War before turning his attention to some of Nicholas’ most destructive measures. He eased censorship of the press, liberalized the education system and instituted a series of legal reforms that granted an unprecedented amount of self-government to local communities. Aware that Russia lagged behind the more modern nations of Western Europe, Alexander completely restructured the country’s economy. In 1861 he abolished serfdom, which had long held more than 20 million Russian peasants in bondage to their landowners. Their emancipation, Alexander argued, was not only morally just, but it was also economically beneficial to all classes. Russia also experienced an industrial revolution under Alexander II: Production boomed; the army was transformed into a military machine equipped with the latest weapons; and a train network crisscrossed the country, allowing for the exploitation of its vast natural resources.
But not everyone was a fan of Alexander’s reforms. Some on the right worried that he was moving too far, too fast. The left, meanwhile, turned on the ruler when he passed a series of conservative measures, openly calling for the overthrow of the czarist system itself. Several failed assassination attempts followed before the Liberator was finally killed on March 13, 1881, by a bomb-throwing member of the group Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will. Ironically, on the day he died, Alexander had signaled his support for Russia’s first-ever legislative assembly. Like Nicholas I before him, the newly crowned Alexander III abandoned his father’s attempts at reform. Russia’s harsh return to an increasingly autocratic system ushered in the 1917 Russian Revolution, which would see the end of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty and the rise of the communist Soviet Union.