10 Interesting Facts About Alexander I of Russia

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Alexander I of Russia
Portrait of Alexander I by Stepan Shchukin, early 19th century.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander I of Russia was an important figure in Russian history who pushed back the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte’s superior army and personally led the Coalition Forces into Paris to solidify their victory. Assisted by Mikhail Speransky, the father of Russian liberalism, Alexander was the first emperor to experiment with liberal reforms in Russia, despite later falling back to supporting his absolute monarchy. To shed some light on his life and legacy, below we have prepared 10 interesting facts about this often overlooked great ruler.

1. Paul I’s murder shaped both the political and personal views of Alexander I.

The murder of Paul I
A French print of Paul I’s murder, 1882-1884.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Paul I’s short five-year reign was a time of great turmoil for the nobility, who like Catherine II, his mother, despised his character and obsession with Prussia. His son Alexander, raised by Catherine herself and thus popular at court, was aware of the plot to remove Paul from the throne in 1801, but the unexpected murder lay on his consciousness for the rest of his life, manifesting itself both in his fear of angering the higher classes and in the religious mysticism that often overshadowed any logic in his everyday affairs.

2. Queen Victoria of England was named after Alexander I, her godfather.

Queen Victoria with her family
Queen Victoria’s extended family, which included the last Russian royals, in Coburg, 1893.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This is particularly surprising given that tensions between the Russian and British empires started long before the Crimean War and that the two countries cooperated very little during the victorian era. Despite being absent at her baptism ceremony in 1819, Alexander I was chosen as Victoria’s godfather and namesake to commemorate the victory against Napoleon. On her part, the queen disliked the name Alexandrina and dropped it upon assuming the throne.

3. Like many in his family, Alexander I was not ethnically Russian.

Napoleon and Alexander I
Alexander (second from the left) reportedly spoke better French than Napoleon (on the left), meeting in Tilsit, 1807.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like elsewhere in Europe, French was the language of the court in 18th century Russia, and it was Alexander’s brother and successor Nicholas I who first revived the use of Russian to some degree. But such changes were doomed from the start, as the majority of the Romanovs married foreign-born (mostly German) royals — the brothers’ ancestry was only one-sixteenth Russian, in the form of their great-great-grandfather Peter I who started the trend. This continued to the last Tsar, whose blood was less than 1 percent Russian.

4. Alexander I turned out to be all talk and no action when it came to reforms.

Mikhail Speransky
A copy of Mikhail Speransky’s portrait, 1850.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Having had a Swiss republican idealist and proponent of the Enlightenment as his main childhood tutor set Alexander on a progressive trajectory during his first years in power. But he didn’t go much further than reshuffling some administrative institutions and by 1807 began delegating this work to Speransky, a self-made man that cautiously tried to modernize the country. Unanimously hated by the nobility, Speransky became Alexander’s scapegoat when tensions reached a melting point in 1812, and with his exile, any hopes for a constitution or emancipation were abandoned.

5. Napoleon lost the war of 1812 before losing a single battle.

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Adolph Northen, 1851.
Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow by Adolph Northen, 1851.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In reaction to Alexander’s refusal to comply with the Continental System, in 1812 Napoleon began an invasion into Russia that proved to be his downfall. Instead of a quick and decisive battle, he was faced with a long-planned scorched-earth policy. This meant that despite winning the Battle of Borodino, after leaving the abandoned city of Moscow with but a fraction of his Great Army he had little chance of winning and had to give in to retreat.

6. Alexander I created the Holy Alliance that helped suppress the Enlightenment. 

The Holy Alliance
A caricature depicting leaders of the Holy Alliance and Duke of Wellington, 1823.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After taking part in redrawing the map of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, Alexander I began working on what he considered the work of his lifetime – uniting the monarchies of Europe under the banner of Christianity. Due to its religious foundations, only Austria and Prussia agreed to sign on in 1815, but Britain and later France had de facto joined the alliance as well. Although the treaty that Alexander envisioned as a guarantee of peace was too vague in wording and practically ended with his death, it had a lasting effect on the diplomacy and reactionary politics of the 19th century.

7. The vicious circle that culminated in the Russian revolutions can be traced back to Alexander I.

The Decembrist uprising of 1825
The Decembrist uprising of 1825 by Vasily Timm, 1853.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Among those who participated in the march to Paris in 1814, many were shocked at how the French political and social life contrasted with Russia. This, along with rising nationalism, led to the emergence of secret organizations that were mostly left unchecked by Alexander I. After the unsuccessful Decembrist revolt that followed his death, his brother Nicholas I only strengthened the Tsar’s grip on power, while the succeeding Alexander II, tutored by Speransky as a child, also backtracked on his promised reforms for fears of a full-scale revolution. The waves of social unrest that began with the early Decembrists resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917.

8. Alexander I wanted to exile Pushkin, his greatest contemporary, to Siberia.

Alexander Pushkin
Portrait of young Pushkin by Vasily Tropinin, 1927
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander’s rule was defined not only by war and reform but also by the rise of arts and literature, which had not taken their current form until the early 19th century. In particular, Alexander’s reign was the time of Alexander Pushkin, who was considered the greatest poet in Russia even before he wrote his most famous works. However, his 1820 “Ode to Liberty” was such a great blow to Alexander that the latter wanted to exile him to Siberia, though in the end settling for the Caucasus.

9. Alexander I’s victory became the cornerstone of Russian state propaganda.

Russian state propaganda
A fight between a Russian peasant and French dragoons, by Ivan Tupylev, 1813-1814.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The patriotic sentiment in Russia reached its all-time high by 1812, in large part thanks to the nationalistic artwork that began circulating in that time. Soon, the French invasion had become known as the Patriotic War of 1812. Despite sticking largely to his predecessor’s plan, Field Marshal Kutuzov had become a national hero, and the myth of partisan resistance was born, while in reality, all actions were government-controlled. This defining moment for Russian nationalism was only overshadowed by the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

10. According to popular legend, Alexander I lived on after his death.

Fyodor Kuzmich
Fyodor Kuzmich on his deathbed, 1864.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The late emperor’s apparent dissatisfaction with his office, his religiosity, and the sudden nature of his death in 1825 left many to wonder whether he was still alive. Over a decade later, a strange man named Fyodor Kuzmich was detained by the police and sent to Siberia, where he earned a certain reputation for his kind nature. Despite a consensus among historians that this is a myth, there is speculation to this day that he was indeed the retired Alexander I, with evidence ranging from accounts of his command of French to some analysis of his handwriting.

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