Alexander I

Alexander I of Russia
Alexander I of Russia

Alexander I was the czar of Russia from 1801 to 1825, a rule during which he not only instituted widespread reforms but later reversed many of them. As a child, he was raised by his grandmother Catherine the Great in a liberal and intellectual environment.

She died when he was a teenager in 1796, and his father died five years later, most likely with Alexander’s complicity as part of a conspiracy to put him on the throne.

Alexander was deeply committed to reform and sought to bring Russia up to speed with the rest of Enlightenment-era Europe. Attempts at drawing up a constitution that could find support failed, and his early legal code was never adopted.

In many cases, Alexander called for reform and micromanaged its adoption, making it impossible for the reform to take place. Other reforms were simply poorly conceived, lacked a practical transition from the status quo, or were unimplementable in light of the existing bureaucracy.

His European contemporaries saw him as enigmatic and inconsistent. When Russia acquired Poland, Alexander approved their constitution, which provided many of the same things he wanted for his own country.

Reform efforts dwindled in 1810 because of the Napoleonic wars that consumed Europe. Alexander was intimidated by Napoleon I, and perhaps by the scale of the wars themselves.

He believed that at stake in the wars in Europe were the rights of humanity and the fate of nations and that only a confederation of European states devoted to the preservation of peace could prevent the dangers of dictators and world conquerors. Napoleon claimed Russia had nothing to fear from France and that the distance between the two nations made them allies.

Any ambitions this may have stirred in Alexander were crushed by the summer of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia. The results startled everyone; in preparation for the invasion of Moscow, Alexander ordered the city evacuated and burned.

Anything that could help the invading French army was destroyed. More than three-quarters of the city was lost. Napoleon began his long retreat, and by the end of the campaign, the French forces of nearly 700,000 had been reduced to less than 25,000.

It was a turning point for both men: Napoleon would ultimately lose, and Alexander would ultimately abandon his quests for reform. He initiated few new programs, failed to see older programs through, and by the end of his reign had reversed many of his early reforms rather than repair them.

Alexander died of sudden illness in 1825, on a voyage in the south. The circumstances of his death inspired rumors claiming that he had been poisoned or he hadn’t died at all and had buried a soldier in his place.