Alexander III of Russia

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Painting of Tsar Alexander III (1886), by Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), original, 41 x 36 in.
Painting of Tsar Alexander III (1886), by Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), original, 41 x 36 in.

Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov or Alexander III (Russian: Александр III Александрович) (March 10, 1845November 1, 1894) was the Tsar of Russia from March 14, 1881 until his death on November 1, 1894.



Alexander was the second son of Alexander II and Marie of Hesse and by Rhine. In natural disposition he bore little resemblance to his soft-hearted, liberal minded father, and still less to his refined, philosophic, sentimental, chivalrous, yet cunning grand-uncle Alexander I, who coveted the title of "the first gentleman of Europe." He had no sympathy with high culture, exquisite refinement and studied elegance and never affected to have any. Indeed, he rather gloried in the idea of being of the same rough texture as the great majority of his subjects. His straightforward, abrupt manner savoured sometimes of gruffness, while his direct, unadorned method of expressing himself harmonized well with his rough-hewn, immobile features and somewhat sluggish movements. His education was not fitted to soften these peculiarities.

Rise to Power

During the first twenty years of his life he had no prospect of succeeding to the throne, because he had an elder brother, Nicholas, who seemed of a fairly robust constitution. Even when this elder brother showed symptoms of delicate health it was believed that his life might be indefinitely prolonged by proper care and attention, and precautions had been taken for the succession by his betrothal with the beautiful princess Dagmar of Denmark. Under these circumstances the greatest solicitude was devoted to the education of Nicholas as csarevich, whereas Alexander received only the perfunctory and inadequate training of an ordinary grand-duke of that period, which did not go much beyond primary and secondary instruction, practical acquaintance with French, English and German, and a certain amount of military drill.


When he became heir-apparent by the death of his elder brother in 1865, he began to study the principles of law and administration under Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was then a professor of civil law at Moscow State University and who later (in 1880) became chief procurator of the Holy Synod. Pobedonostsev awakened in his pupil very little love for abstract studies or prolonged intellectual exertion, but he influenced the character of Alexander's reign by instilling into the young man's mind the belief that zeal for Russian Orthodox thought was an essential factor of Russian patriotism and was to be specially cultivated by every right-minded tsar.

On his deathbed, his elder brother had expressed a wish that his affianced bride, Princess Dagmar of Denmark, should marry his successor, and this wish was realized on November 9, 1866. The union proved a most happy one and remained unclouded to the end. During those years when he was heir-apparent—1865 to 1881—he did not play a prominent part in public affairs, but he allowed it to become known that he had certain ideas of his own which did not coincide with the principles of the existing government.

Foreign Relations

Pont Alexandre III in Paris commemorates the conclusion of the Franco-Russian Alliance.
Pont Alexandre III in Paris commemorates the conclusion of the Franco-Russian Alliance.

He deprecated what he considered undue foreign influence in general, and German influence in particular, and he longed to see the adoption of genuine national principles in all spheres of official activity, with a view to realizing his ideal of a homogeneous Russia—homogeneous in language, administration and religion. With such ideas and aspirations he could hardly remain permanently in cordial agreement with his father, who, though a good patriot according to his lights, had strong German sympathies, often used the German language in his private relations, occasionally ridiculed the exaggerations and eccentricities of the Slavophiles and based his foreign policy on the Prussian alliance.

The antagonism first appeared publicly during the Franco-Prussian War, when the tsar supported the cabinet of Berlin and the tsarevich did not conceal his sympathies with the French. It reappeared in an intermittent fashion during the years 1875–1879, when the Eastern question produced so much excitement in all ranks of Russian society. At first the tsarevich was more Slavophile than the government, but his phlegmatic nature preserved him from many of the exaggerations indulged in by others, and any of the prevalent popular illusions he may have imbibed were soon dispelled by personal observation in Bulgaria, where he commanded the left wing of the invading army.

The Bulgarians had been represented in St. Petersburg and Moscow not only as martyrs but also as saints, and a very little personal experience sufficed to correct the error. Like most of his brother officers he could not feel any very great affection for the "little brothers", as the Bulgarians were then commonly called, and he was constrained to admit that the Turks were by no means so black as they had been painted. He did not, however, scandalize the believers by any public expression of his opinions, and did not indeed make himself conspicuous in any way during the campaign. Never consulted on political questions, he confined himself to his military duties and fulfilled them in a conscientious and unobtrusive manner. After many mistakes and disappointments, the army reached Constantinople and the treaty of San Stefano was signed, but much that had been obtained by that important document had to be sacrificed at the congress of Berlin. Prince Bismarck failed to do what was confidently expected of him.

In return for the Russian support, which had enabled him to create the German empire, it was thought that he would help Russia to solve the Eastern question in accordance with her own interests, but to the surprise and indignation of the cabinet of St. Petersburg he confined himself to acting the part of "honest broker" at the congress, and shortly afterwards he ostentatiously contracted an alliance with Austria for the express purpose of counteracting Russian designs in Eastern Europe. The tsarevich could point to these results as confirming the views he had expressed during the Franco-Prussian War, and he drew from them the practical conclusion that for Russia the best thing to do was to recover as quickly as possible from her temporary exhaustion and to prepare for future contingencies by a radical scheme of military and naval reorganization. In accordance with this conviction, he suggested that certain reforms should be introduced.


Paolo Troubetzkoy's equestrian monument to Alexander III (1900-06) brilliantly conveys the impression of brutal power that the tsar was said to emanate.
Paolo Troubetzkoy's equestrian monument to Alexander III (1900-06) brilliantly conveys the impression of brutal power that the tsar was said to emanate.

During the campaign in Bulgaria he had found by painful experience that grave disorders and gross corruption existed in the military administration, and after his return to St. Petersburg he had discovered that similar abuses existed in the naval department. For these abuses, several high-placed personages—among others two of the grand-dukes—were believed to be responsible, and he called his father's attention to the subject. His representations were not favourably received. Alexander II had lost much of the reforming zeal which distinguished the first decade of his reign, and had no longer the energy required to undertake the task suggested to him. The consequence was that the relations between father and son became more strained. The latter must have felt that there would be no important reforms until he himself succeeded to the direction of affairs. That change was much nearer at hand than was commonly supposed. On the 13 March 1881 Alexander II was assassinated by a band of Nihilists, Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), and the autocratic power passed to the hands of his son.

In the last years of his reign, Alexander II had been much exercised by the spread of Nihilist doctrines and the increasing number of anarchist conspiracies, and for some time he had hesitated between strengthening the hands of the executive and making concessions to the widespread political aspirations of the educated classes. Finally he decided in favour of the latter course, and on the very day of his death he signed a ukaz, creating a number of consultative commissions which might have been easily transformed into an assembly of notables.

Following advice of his political mentor Konstantin Pobedonostsev, Alexander III determined to adopt the opposite policy. He at once cancelled the ukaz before it was published, and in the manifesto announcing his accession to the throne he let it be very clearly understood that he had no intention of limiting or weakening the autocratic power which he had inherited from his ancestors. Nor did he afterwards show any inclination to change his mind.

All the internal reforms which he initiated were intended to correct what he considered as the too liberal tendencies of the previous reign, so that he left behind him the reputation of a sovereign of the retrograde type. In his opinion Russia was to be saved from anarchical disorders and revolutionary agitation, not by the parliamentary institutions and so-called liberalism of western Europe, but by the three principles which the elder generation of the Slavophils systematically recommended—nationality, Eastern Orthodoxy and autocracy. His political ideal was a nation containing only one nationality, one language, one religion and one form of administration; and he did his utmost to prepare for the realization of this ideal by imposing the Russian language and Russian schools on his German, Polish and Finnish subjects, by fostering Eastern Orthodoxy at the expense of other confessions, by persecuting the Jews and by destroying the remnants of German, Polish and Swedish institutions in the outlying provinces.

Nikita Mikhalkov as Tsar Alexander III in his movie The Barber of Siberia (1998).
Nikita Mikhalkov as Tsar Alexander III in his movie The Barber of Siberia (1998).

In the other provinces he sought to counteract what he considered the excessive liberalism of his father's reign. For this purpose he removed what little power had by zemstvo, an elective local administration resembling the county and parish councils in England, had and placed the autonomous administration of the peasant communes under the supervision of landed proprietors appointed by the government. At the same time he sought to strengthen and centralize the imperial administration, and to bring it more under his personal control.

In foreign affairs he was emphatically a man of peace, but not at all a partisan of the doctrine of peace at any price, and he followed the principle that the best means of averting war is to be well prepared for it. Though indignant at the conduct of Prince Bismarck towards Russia, he avoided an open rupture with Germany, and even revived for a time the Three Emperors' Alliance.

It was only in the last years of his reign, when Mikhail Katkov had acquired a certain influence over him, that he adopted towards the cabinet of Berlin a more hostile attitude, and even then he confined himself to keeping a large quantity of troops near the German frontier, and establishing cordial relations with France. With regard to Bulgaria he exercised similar self-control. The efforts of Prince Alexander and afterwards of Stamboloff to destroy Russian influence in the principality excited his indignation, but he persistently vetoed all proposals to intervene by force of arms.

In 1887, once again the Peoples Will planned the murder of Tsar Alexander III. Among the conspirators captured were one Aleksandr Ulyanov. Ulyanov was sentenced to death and hanged on May 5, 1887. Alexander Ulyanov was the brother of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who would later take the pseudonym V.I. Lenin.

In Central Asian affairs he followed the traditional policy of gradually extending Russian domination without provoking a conflict with the United Kingdom, and he never allowed the bellicose partisans of a forward policy to get out of hand. As a whole his reign cannot be regarded as one of the eventful periods of Russian history; but it must be admitted that under his hard unsympathetic rule the country made considerable progress. He died at Livadiya on the 1st of November 1894. Alexander III was succeeded by his eldest son Nicholas II of Russia.


Alexander III had six children of his marriage with Princess Dagmar of Denmark, later known as Marie Feodorovna:

Preceded by:
Alexander II
Emperor of Russia
March 14, 1881November 1, 1894
Succeeded by:
Nicholas II

This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

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