1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Alexander II. (tsar)
ALEXANDER II. (1818–1881), emperor of Russia, eldest son of Nicholas I., was born on the 29th of April 1818. His early life gave little indication of his subsequent activity, and up to the moment of his accession in 1855 no one ever imagined that he would be known to posterity as a great reformer. In so far as he had any decided political convictions, he seemed to be animated with that reactionary spirit which was predominant in Europe at the time of his birth, and continued in Russia to the end of his father’s reign. In the period of thirty years during which he was heir-apparent, the moral atmosphere of St Petersburg was very unfavourable to the development of any originality of thought or character. It was a time of government on martinet principles, under which all freedom of thought and all private initiative were as far as possible suppressed vigorously by the administration. Political topics were studiously avoided in general conversation, and books or newspapers in which the most keen-scented press-censor could detect the least odour of political or religious free-thinking were strictly prohibited. Criticism of existing authorities was regarded as a serious offence. The common policeman, the insignificant scribe in a public office, and even the actors in the “imperial” theatres, were protected against public censure as effectually as the government itself; for the whole administration was considered as one and indivisible, and an attack on the humblest representative of the imperial authority was looked on as an indirect attack on the fountain from which that authority flowed. Such was the moral atmosphere in which young Alexander Nicolaevich grew up to manhood. He received the education commonly given to young Russians of good family at that time—a smattering of a great many subjects, and a good practical acquaintance with the chief modern European languages. Like so many of his countryman he displayed great linguistic ability, and his quick ear caught up even peculiarities of dialect. His ordinary life was that of an officer of the Guards, modified by the ceremonial duties incumbent on him as heir to the throne. Nominally he held the post of director of the military schools, but he took little personal interest in military affairs. To the disappointment of his father, in whom the military instinct was ever predominant, he showed no love of soldiering, and gave evidence of a kindliness of disposition and a tender-heartedness which were considered out of place in one destined to become a military autocrat. These tendencies had been fostered by his tutor Zhukovsky, the amiable humanitarian poet, who had made the Russian public acquainted with the literature of the German romantic school, and they remained with him all through life, though they did not prevent him from being severe in his official position when he believed severity to be necessary. In 1841 he married the daughter of the grand-duke Louis II. of Hesse, Maximilienne Wilhelmine Marie, thenceforward known as Maria Alexandrova, who bore him six sons and two daughters. He did not travel much abroad, for his father, in his desire to exclude from Holy Russia the subversive ideas current in Western Europe, disapproved foreign tours, and could not consistently encourage in his own family what he tried to prevent among the rest of his subjects. He visited England, however, in 1839, and in the years immediately preceding his accession he was entrusted with several missions to the courts of Berlin and Vienna. On the 2nd of March 1855, during the Crimean war, he succeeded to the throne on the death of his father.
The first year of the new reign was devoted to the prosecution of the war, and after the fall of Sevastopol, to negotiations for peace. Then began a period of radical reforms, recommended by public opinion and carried out by the autocratic power. The rule of Nicholas, which had sacrificed all other interests to that of making Russia an irresistibly strong military power, had been tried by the Crimean War and found wanting. A new system must, therefore, be adopted. All who had any pretensions to enlightenment declared loudly that the country had been exhausted and humiliated by the war, and that the only way of restoring it to its proper position in Europe was to develop its natural resources and to reform thoroughly all branches of the administration. The government found, therefore, in the educated classes a new-born public spirit, anxious to assist it in any work of reform that it might think fit to undertake. Fortunately for Russia the autocratic power was now in the hands of a man who was impressionable enough to be deeply influenced by the spirit of time, and who had sufficient prudence and practical common-sense to prevent his being carried away by the prevailing excitement into the dangerous region of Utopian dreaming. Unlike some of his predecessors, he had no grand, original schemes of his own to impose by force on unwilling subjects, and no pet crotchets to lead his judgment astray; and he instinctively looked with a suspicious, critical eye on the panaceas which more imaginative and less cautious people recommended. These traits of character, together with the peculiar circumstances in which he was placed, determined the part which he was to play. He moderated, guided and in great measure realized the reform aspirations of the educated classes. Though he carefully guarded his autocratic rights and privileges, and obstinately resisted all efforts to push him farther than he felt inclined to go he acted for several years somewhat like a constitutional sovereign of the continental type. At first he moved so slowly that many of the impatient, would-be reformers began to murmur at the unnecessary delay. In reality not much time was lost. Soon after the conclusion of peace important changes were made in the legislation concerning industry and commerce, and the new freedom thus accorded produced a large number of limited liability companies. At the same times plans were formed for constructing a great network of railways, partly for the purpose of developing the natural resources of the country, and partly for the purpose of increasing its powers of defence and attack. Then it was found that further progress was blocked by a great obstacle, the Emancipation of the serfs. existence of serfage; and Alexander II. showed that, unlike his father, he meant to grapple boldly with the difficult and dangerous problem. Taking advantage of a petition presented by the Polish landed proprietors of the Lithuanian provinces, praying that their relations with the serfs might be regulated in a more satisfactory way—meaning in a way more satisfactory for the proprietors—he authorized the formation of committees “for ameliorating the condition of the peasants,” and laid down the principles on which the amelioration was to be effected. This was a decided step and it was followed by one still more significant. Without consulting his ordinary advisers, his majesty ordered the minister of the interior to send a circular to the provincial governors of European Russia, containing a copy of the instructions forwarded to the governor-general of Lithuania, praising the supposed generous, patriotic intentions of the Lithuanian landed proprietors of other provinces might express a similar desire. The hint was taken, of course, and in all provinces where serfage existed emancipation committees were formed. The deliberations at once raised a host of important, thorny questions. The emancipation was not merely a humanitarian question capable of being solved instantaneously by imperial ukaz. It contained very complicated problems affecting deeply the economic, social and political future of the nation. Alexander II. had little of the special knowledge required for dealing successfully with such problems, and he had to restrict himself to choosing between the different measures recommended to him. The main point at issue was whether the serfs should become agricultural labourers dependent economically and administratively on the landlords, or should be transformed into a class of independent communal proprietors. The emperor gave his support to the latter project, and the Russian peasantry accordingly acquired rights and privileges such as are enjoyed by no other peasantry in Europe. In the numerous other questions submitted to him he began by consulting carefully the conflicting authorities, and while leaning as a rule rather to the side of those who were known as “Liberals,” he never went so far as they desired, and always sought some middle course by which conflicting interests might be reconciled. On the 3rd of March 1861, the sixth anniversary of his accession, the emancipation law was signed and published. Other reforms followed in quick succession during the next five or six years: army and navy organization, a new judicial administration on the French model, a new penal code and a greatly simplified system of civil and criminal procedure, an elaborate scheme of local self-government for the rural districts and the large towns, with elective assemblies possessing a restricted right of taxation, and a new rural and municipal police under the direction of the minister of the interior. These new institutions were incomparably better than the old ones which they replaced, but they did not work such miracles as inexperienced enthusiasts expected. Comparisons were made, not with the past, but with an ideal state of things which never existed in Russia or elsewhere. Hence arose a general feeling of disappointment, which acted on different natures in different ways. Some of the enthusiasts sank into a sceptical, reactionary frame of mind; while others, with deeper convictions or capable of more lasting excitement, attributed the failure to the fact that only half-measures and compromises had been adopted by the government. Thus appeared in the educated classes two extreme groups: on the one hand, the discontented Conservatives, who recommended a return to a more severe disciplinarian régime; and on the other, the discontented Radicals, who would have been satisfied with nothing less than the adoption of a socialistic programme. Between the two extremes stood the discontented Moderates, who indulged freely in grumbling without knowing how the unsatisfactory state of things was to be remedied. For some years the emperor, with his sound common-sense and dislike of exaggeration, held the balance fairly between the two extremes; but long years of uninterrupted labour, anxiety and disappointment weakened his zeal for reform, and when radicalism assumed more and more the form of secret societies and revolutionary agitation, he felt constrained to adopt severe repressive measures.
The revolutionary agitation was of a very peculiar kind. It was confined to a section of the educated classes, and emanated from the universities and higher technical schools. At the beginning of the reform period there had been much enthusiasm for scientific as opposed to classical education. Nihilism.Russia required, it was said, not classical scholars, but practical, scientific men, capable of developing her natural resources. The government, in accordance with this view, had encouraged scientific studies until it discovered to its astonishment that there was some mysterious connexion between natural science and revolutionary tendencies. Many of the young men and women, who were supposed to be qualifying as specialists in the various spheres of industrial and commercial enterprise, were in reality devoting their time to considering how human society in general, and Russian society in particular, could be reconstructed in accordance with the latest physiological, biological and sociological principles. Some of these young people wished to put their crude notions immediately into practice, and as their desire to make gigantic socialist experiments naturally alarmed the government, their activity was opposed by the police. Many of them were arrested and imprisoned or exiled to distant provinces, but the revolutionary work was continued with unabated zeal. Thus arose a struggle between the youthful, hot-headed partisans of revolutionary physical science and the zealous official guardians of political order—a struggle which has made the strange term Nihilism (q.v.) a familiar word not only in Russia but also in western Europe. The movement gradually assumed the form of terrorism, and aimed at the assassination of prominent officials, and even of the emperor himself, and the natural result was that the reactionary tendencies of the government were strengthened.
In foreign policy Alexander II. showed the same qualities of character as in internal affairs, ever trying prudently to steer a middle course. When he came to the throne a peace policy was imposed on him by circumstances. The Crimean War was still going on, but as there was no Foreign policy.doubt as to the final issue, and the country was showing symptoms of exhaustion, he concluded peace with the allies as soon as he thought the national honour had been satisfied. Prince Gorchakov could then declare to Europe, “ ”; and for fifteen years he avoided foreign complications, so that the internal strength of the country might be developed, while the national pride and ambition received a certain satisfaction by the expansion of Russian influence and domination in Asia. Twice, indeed, during that period the chancellor ran the risk of provoking war. The first occasion was in 1863, when the Western powers seemed inclined to interfere in the Polish question, and the Russian chancery declared categorically that no interference would be tolerated. The second occasion was during the Franco-German War of 1870–71, when the cabinet of St Petersburg boldly declared that it considered itself no longer bound by the Black Sea clause of the treaty of Paris. On both these occasions hostilities were averted. Not so on the next occasion, when Russia abandoned her attitude of recueillement. When the Eastern question was raised in 1875 by the insurrection of Herzegovina, Alexander II. had no intention or wish to provoke a great European war. No doubt he was waiting for an opportunity of recovering the portion of Bessarabia which had been ceded by the treaty of Paris, and he perceived in the disturbed state of Eastern Europe a possibility of obtaining the desired rectification of frontier, but he hoped to effect his purpose by diplomatic means in conjunction with Austria. At the same time he was anxious to obtain for the Christians of Turkey some amelioration of their condition, and to give thereby some satisfaction to his own subjects. As autocratic ruler of the nation which had long considered itself the defender of the Eastern Orthodox faith and the protector of the Slav nationalities, he could not remain inactive at such a crisis, and he gradually allowed himself to drift into a position from which he could not retreat without obtaining some tangible result. Supposing that the Porte would yield to diplomatic pressure and menace so far as to make some reasonable concessions, he delivered his famous Moscow speech, in which he declared that if Europe would not secure a better position for the oppressed Slavs he would act alone. The diplomatic pressure failed and war became inevitable. During the campaign he displayed the same perseverance and the same moderation that he had shown in the emancipation of the serfs. To those who began to despair of success, and advised him to conclude peace on almost any terms so as to avoid greater disasters, he turned a deaf ear, and brought the campaign to a successful conclusion; but when his more headstrong advisers urged him to insist on terms which would probably have produced a conflict with Great Britain and Austria, he resolved, after some hesitation, to make the requisite concessions. In this resolution he was influenced by the discovery that he could not rely on the expected support of Germany, and the discovery made him waver in his devotion to the German alliance, which had been the main pivot of his foreign policy; but his personal attachment to the emperor William prevented him from adopting a hostile attitude towards the empire he had helped to create.
The patriotic excitement produced by the war did not weaken the revolutionary agitation. The struggle between the Terrorists and the police authorities became more and more intense, and attempts at assassination became more and more frequent. Alexander II. succumbed by degrees to the mental depression produced originally by the disappointments which he experienced in his home and foreign policy; and in 1880, when he had reigned twenty-five years, he entrusted to Count Loris-Melikov a large share of the executive power. In that year the empress died, and a few weeks afterwards he married secretly a Princess Dolgoruki, with whom he had already entertained intimate relations for some years. Early in 1881, on the advice of Count Loris-Melikov, he determined to try the effect of some moderate liberal reforms on the revolutionary agitation, and for this purpose he caused a ukaz to be prepared creating special commissions, composed of high officials and private personages who should prepare reforms in various branches of the administration. On the very day on which this ukaz was signed—13th of March 1881—he fell a victim to a Nihilist plot. When driving in one of the central streets of St Petersburg, near the Winter Palace, he was mortally wounded by the explosion of some small bombs and died a few hours afterwards. (D. M. W.)