Monday, January 25, 2016

Who were Russia's Benevolent Despots? (Part 2): Alexander I

Left to Right: Catherine II, Alexander I and Alexander IIWith the death of Catherine, his grandson followed in her footstep in ruling as a Benevolent Despot. Explore how Alexander I ruled Russia as a absolute yet enlightened autocrat.

Benevolent despotism became the slogan for the rule of Catherine the Great. With the spirits of liberalism, humanism, and reform combined with autocracy and absolute power, her style of rule became a model for her successors. But after her death. His son took power and abandoned her slogan of Enlightened Despotism. This move proved to be fatal for Tsar Paul I and gave an opportunity to his son Alexander.

Reign of Paul I

In 1796, the benevolent despotism of Catherine the Great ended and the throne fell to his son Paul. Paul’s reign was brief - only four years. But within those years, he issued numerous laws and decrees that earned him countless enemies. His laws proved to be strict and brutal. His style of rule was truly autocratic.

He spent much of his time with his guards, whom Paul dressed up in Prussian uniform and disciplined them in Prussian style as well. Being a member of his guards was stressful. One single mistake, even a small wrong detail in either their uniform or wig, caused severe punishment.

For civilians, the strict and ever changing laws of Paul caused irritation and discontent. Paul’s reign was becoming unpopular to Russians. Eventually, the people and the ruling elite got fed up and plotted to overthrow the Tsar.

Alexander, Paul’s son, heard rumors about these plots. He supported its aim of overthrowing his father but disagreed about killing the Tsar. However, all did not went according to Alexander’s wishes.

In 1801, a group of military officers went berserk. In the middle of the night, they stormed at Paul’s Mikhailovsky Palace. The storming culminated when the officers murdered the Tsar. The tragic death of Paul scarred Alexander with guilt and conscience for the rest of his life.

Reign of Alexander I

Tsarevitch Alexander Pavlovich Romanov then ascended to the Russian throne. He assumed the throne like his grandmother Catherine the Great - with a palace coup. Although he was the rightful heir, the bloody events that led to his accession left him in anguish in addition to his personal feeling of not wanting to be Tsar. Nevertheless, he was already in the position and he had to deliver to his supporters – the military and the nobility – what they wanted – a return to an era of great imperial prestige and a society where the landed aristocrats flourished. Alexander did this and in addition and in respect out of his upbringing and his grandmother. He wanted also to rule with the spirit like that of Catherine the Great – a benevolent despot.

Upbringing of Alexander I

Alexander Romanov grew up as an intellectual under the guidance of his grandmother Catherine. Catherine did not trust his son Paul due to the fact that he displayed the same character of childishness and ridiculousness as his late father Peter III. She decided to take Alexander from his father and she raised him as her own.

The Empress groomed Alexander as an intellectual and a cultured man. She wanted him to learn the same ideals that she herself believed in – the ideals of the Enlightenment and Liberalism. And so Alexander received the best education that a Russian Empress could give. As a matter of fact, the great French Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot was almost recruited to become Alexander’s tutor; but, Diderot declined the offer. And so the job went to a Swiss liberal and republican Frederic-Cesar La Harpe. Eventually, Alexander did become a liberal, progressive, and enlightened minded Tsarevitch.

Alexander’s Character

Alexander, however, presented two personalities: one in front of Catherine, the other in front of his father Paul. He understood that both individuals showed different environment. The former presented a cultured and intellectual court, while the latter presented a disciplined Prussian military lifestyle. As one article said, Alexander had to shift his views and personality to match the environment and to be ultimately a “social chameleon” (Russiapedia, Accessed in 2015). 

Alexander’s Rule

Alexander began his reign by presenting a return to the so-called golden age of Catherine the Great. Alexander presented himself as a vigorous young and charming Tsar who placed importance in improving his people’s lives. He dedicated himself to the ideas that Catherine the Great cherished. To show himself as a benevolent absolute monarch, he reversed most of Paul’s draconian decrees that Russians hated. He also promoted education by expanding the number schools, establishing new universities, and creating new institutions to support the growing education system, such as new institutes for training teachers. Alexander relaxed censorship and welcomed discord among scholars. Alexander himself engaged in intellectual discussions with his newly established the Private/Privy Committee or the Neglasny Komitet composing liberal-minded princes and friends. The Private Committee had discords concerning the ideas of the Enlightenment and its application to improve the lives of Russians.

Like Catherine the Great, Alexander also banned torture and centralized government administration of the whole empire. Other than reforming local administration, Alexander planned big by intending to set up a constitution as well as a parliament - a radical idea that reducing the autocratic powers of the Tsars. In setting up a constitution, Alexander gave the task to the liberal scholar Mikhail Speransksy. Speranksy studied the feasibility and contents of the planned constitution, basing it from the Napoleonic Code, which he admired so much.

Alexander also instituted improvements in the condition of serfs. He shared the view of his grandmother on the inhumane institution of serfdom. He passed a law that allowed serfs to buy themselves out of servitude and into freedom. He even pushed forward by planning to abolish serfdom itself.

Alexander, although showing a great deal of reform initially, later on change his course of direction. Much of his liberal policies were either reversed or discontinued. Much of this was caused by the opposition of the nobility. Another was the shift of interest from domestic affairs to foreign affairs brought by the Napoleonic War raging across Europe. And lastly, Alexander began to sink into the depths of mysticism and later conservatism due to the burdens of the war. His plan to abolish serfdom was abandoned. In 1812, when Napoleon attacked Russia, many nobles looked on admirers of Napoleon, like Mikhail Speransky, with suspicion. Later on, Alexander exiled his liberal adviser. More changes in his policy followed after the Napoleonic War.

After Napoleon and Later Years

Post-Napoleonic War condition changed Alexander. Like his grandmother who looked to her Enlightenment ideas with suspicion in her later years, so too for Alexander. After the war, officers and nobles who returned from France brought back liberal Enlightenment Ideas. Plots to abolish or weaken the monarchy began to be made. Alexander began to worry. But when another policy of his failed, he started to act against the ideas he once believed.

The military settlements project gave Alexander a huge problem. Under the project, soldiers lived in settlements with their families where they make a living by farming the surrounding land. The policy eventually backfired, caused by strict rules and abuses within the settlement. It resulted to riots by military units that broke Alexander’s heart.

Alexander took reactionary stance when news of plots against him surfaced. He re-imposed censorship and placed liberals under surveillance. Later on, the situation brought back to Alexander his past desires to abdicate and to leave his throne to his brothers.

In 1825, Alexander took a trip to the south to take a rest from his duties. But he did not return to St. Petersburg alive. On that year, in the southern city of Taganrog, Emperor Alexander I passed away at the age of 47 due to Typhus.

The Aftermath

The liberalism brought by his grandmother, himself, and the Napoleonic War in addition to his desire to abdicate resulted to confusion. This confusion unleashed motion of events that realized the fears of Alexander of revolts that threatened the power of Russian autocracy.

Summing Up Alexander and Benevolent Despotism

Alexander is a difficult personage. His personality as a social chameleon made it difficult to known what he truly thought. Nevertheless, he might truly share the Enlightenment views of his grandmother. However, like her, he also had limits in realizing the ideas of liberalism and freedom. Foreign wars and a conservative nobility whose wealth came from serf labor prevented any form of radical reforms in Russia. He underwent a transformation during the war that changed his views further. his piety led to detachment to the real situation of Russia. The failure of the military settlements which led to riot deepened his mistrust on his Enlightenment views. It resulted to his reversal of stand from Enlightened to reactionary, like what happened to his grandmother. 

Explore also:
Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online, s. v. "Alexander I." accessed November 14, 2015,

“Prominent Russians: Alexander I.” Russiapedia (Get to know Russia better). Accessed on November 15, 2015.

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