A number of political commentators noted during President Vladimir Putin’s first term that he reminded them of Tsar Alexander II, the reform-minded ruler from the mid-19th century who abolished serfdom in Russia and attempted to institute many other Western-style changes in the governance of the Russian Empire. Russia’s leading crime novelist, Boris Akunin, also noted: “There are a lot of similarities between Russians one hundred years ago and now, and most of the problems we are facing now, well, they first appeared then. . . . We are more or less at the same crossroads, like during the reign of Tsar Alexander II.”
As I read Edvard Radzinsky’s Alexander II: The Last Great Russian Tsar, these same thoughts keep going through my mind. There appear to me to be so many parallels, and Radzinsky makes a direct connection at several points in his 430-page biography between the challenges Alexander II faced and those faced by Russian leaders in the last fifteen years.
The Tsar Liberator’s Training
Some of the most poignant parts of Alexander’s biography come from his childhood and the dominant influence of his father, Nicholas I, an autocratic ruler who wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps. It was fascinating to learn, for example, that when Alexander was a young man, his father sent him on two journeys as a part of his education. The first trip was a seven-month journey to thirty different Russian provinces; Alexander was the first Russian Tsar to ever visit Siberia. His second trip was to Europe for the purpose of finding a wife, preferably one from German nobility – which, in fact, he did!
Alexander was not the son his father wanted him to be, even though Nicholas I tried many different tactics to shape him into his mold. As Alexander’s childhood is described, including this difficult relationship between father and son, the reader can also see the chasm that existed between the royal family and the nobility that surrounded the court and the rest of the country, which was struggling just to survive.
Radzinsky also records the history of the Romanovs and the bloody conspiracies and murders surrounding the succession of the Tsars. The terrible irony of Russian history is that their autocratic form of government was so unstable. Power was not shared outside of a small circle of elites, and this led to much bloodshed. The smooth transition in leadership from Nicholas I to his son, Alexander I, in 1855 was the first peaceful succession in 150 years.
On February 19, 1861, Tsar Alexander II signed a manifesto repealing serfdom, something he had wanted to do from the beginning of his reign, but which had taken him six years to ultimately execute. It is interesting to note that serfdom was repealed in Russia just before Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in the United States, but in Russia they were spared a civil war. Both emancipators were also killed while in office.
Radzinsky described Alexander II as “a reformer of a new kind – a two-faced Janus, one head looking forward while the other looked back longingly. Mikhail Gorbachev was this kind of reformer.” For example, the Tsar Liberator immediately followed this bold action of freeing the serfs by taking steps to satisfy his opponents. He tried to keep both ends of the political spectrum happy, a pattern he followed without much success throughout his entire reign.
His other reforms included the creation of a State Council, Russia’s first elected institution, the first-ever publication of the state budget, the founding of a new court system, and major reforms of the army. It is fascinating to note how many conservative members of the nobility became “fashionable liberals” because the Tsar was. But when Alexander changed course and began to withdraw some of the liberal reforms, his advisors often shifted ground with him.
One of the sad dimensions of this story is the incredible immorality of the royal family, a pattern that was practiced for decades by the Romanovs and many of the nobility. Unfaithfulness, illegitimate children, taking advantage of young girls at the whim of a ruler, exploiting ballerinas – the story is painful to read. Even worse, the Romanovs and their cliques acted all the while as if they were faithful Orthodox believers, even though their promiscuity was hardly even covered up. Everyone knew about the depraved behavior, and even members of their own staff were disgusted by what they saw. A price was paid for this infidelity.
The Terrorist Threat
The story of the terrorist movement in Russia, well documented in this biography, is a painful one to read and, once again, the parallels to our current situation are overwhelming. When young Russians, often from the nobility, decided to join the underground, their sole commitment was to destruction and to the assassination of rulers, with no concern for the innocent killed in the process. When they became “suicide killers,” willing to give up their lives for their cause, their attacks were almost impossible to stop. Dynamite became the weapon of choice, giving power to the powerless. Ultimately, after six unsuccessful assassination attempts, the terrorists finally murdered Alexander II in 1881. The expected “revolution of the people” never occurred as the terrorists had hoped, but the seeds of terrorism had been planted. The eventual fruit from these seeds of terrorism appeared in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took over the country and the entire nation experienced equality in slavery.
The Tragic Ending
Immediately after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, his son was crowned Tsar Alexander III. Alexander III proceeded to reverse the reforms of his father and put into power key officials who had been working against these reform efforts for years. As Radzinsky points out, Russia was at a critical crossroads and “once again took the wrong path.” Instead of attempting to build a constitutional form of government, the new Tsar consolidated his autocratic power and contributed to the Romanov dynasty’s demise. When it collapsed in 1917, there was no one to defend it, just like when the Soviet regime imploded in 1991. In both cases, there was no legitimacy left, no respect for the ruling authorities.