In this brilliant article with a twist at the end, Helen Saker-Parsons tells us the story of the various assassination attempts on 19th century Russian ruler Tsar Alexander II. And his compelling and complicated love life – or lives…
Historically, it is a bear that symbolizes the Russian Imperial Court. But for Alexander II, Tsar of Russia from 1855 to 1881, there are more suitable creature comparisons. His was a reign marked by assassination attempts and sexual assignations. He appeared to have the many lives of a cat but was also referred to as a rat – a love rat. For though it was customary for imperial rulers to take mistresses, Alexander II appeared to move beyond what was acceptable, even for a Tsar.
But has history misjudged his sexual misdemeanors? Or could it be argued that it was his awareness that as a cat his lives were not infinite which pushed him towards his love-rat behavior?
Attacks on a ruler
Alexander II oversaw a period of upheaval and change in imperialist Russia. Nick-named ‘the liberator,’ it is the emancipation of the serfs for which he is most renowned. But how the country adapted to change was to leave the Tsar vulnerable, with enemies amongst both the radical reformers and conservative factions. Alexander survived several attempts on his life, firstly from lone assassins and then by the Nihilist group, Narodnaya Volya [People’s Will]. His first near-miss he later referred to “as the event of April 4 1866.” On this date the elbow of Dimitry Karakozov was reportedly nudged as he aimed his revolver at the Tsar leaving the Summer Garden in St Petersburg. When the Tsar questioned the captured wannabe assassin as to what he wanted, the latter apparently replied: “nothing.” During the 1867 World Fair, Polish immigrant Antoni Berezowski attacked Alexander’s carriage but his pistol misfired and hit a horse instead. On April 20 1879, Alexander was out walking when he spotted an armed man, 33 year old former school teacher, Alexander Soloviev, approaching. The Tsar fled, running in a zigzag pattern so that all five of Soloviev’s bullets missed him.
The People’s Will was founded in 1879 with the principal policy of killing the Tsar. In November their initial attempt to bomb his train route at three points failed. The train diverted from the first point; the dynamite failed to ignite at the second as it did at the third – when a tunnel dug to the track from a rented apartment passed through sandy soil and flooded. On the evening of February 5, 1880, one of their members, employed as a stoker at the Winter Palace, set off a charge in the guard’s rest room aimed to coincide with the Tsar and his family gathering to eat in the dining room above. Eleven people were killed and a further thirty wounded but the Tsar and his family were not amongst the casualties, having fortuitously delayed their meal. Poor time-keeping saved Alexander on The People’s Will’s third attempt when one of their terrorists turned up too late to blow up a bridge over the Catherine Canal which the Tsar was set to cross. The fourth attempt was abandoned when the Tsar changed his travel plans thus avoiding the road that had been mined. For their fifth effort The People’s Will returned to tunneling and rented an apartment from which to burrow and bomb one of Alexander’s frequent haunts. But the terrorist group failed to represent everybody’s will and one of their neighbors denounced them.
Alexander II had survived eight times and a cat is known to have nine lives. That eventually an attempt on his life should be successful seemed an accepted fact both by Alexander and his contemporaries. The British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had remarked in 1874 that the Tsar always looked sad questioning “Whether it is satiety, or the loneliness of despotism, or fear of a violent death, I know not” and Peter Kropotkin describes the events of March 13, 1881 ‘the tragedy developed with the unavoidable fatality of one of Shakespeare’s dramas.’ On this Sunday, Alexander was travelling his usual route when a bomb was thrown under his carriage. He alighted to inspect the damage and console the wounded Cossacks who accompanied him. A second, as it happened suicidal, terrorist, Ignatei Grinevitski, seized the opportunity to throw another bomb; this time with more success. The Tsar’s legs were blown off by the blast and chunks of his flesh, combined with that of others caught in the blast, littered the lying snow. The dying emperor was taken by sleigh to the Winter Palace. His mutilated body was met by members of his family. His grandson, who later became Tsar Nicholas II and was to meet a violent demise himself, described that “there were big red spots on the carpet - when they had carried my grandfather up the stairs, blood from the terrible wounds he had suffered from the explosion poured out.” Alexander’s body was taken to his quarters, passed the secret passageway, which led down to another series of rooms. It was the presence of these and his mistress and children housed there which gained him the reputation of a rat.
A history of lovers
Alexander II had many admirers, not least Queen Victoria, whom he first met in 1839, when both were barely out of their teens. She wrote in her diary: ‘I really am quite in love with the Grand Duke; he is a dear, delightful young man.’ During his month-long visit to England the two went on horse rides in Windsor, attended balls at Buckingham Palace and even spent half an hour alone behind closed curtains in the royal box at the theatre. But Alexander’s father, Tsar Nicholas I, feared a marriage would result in his son having to give up the Russian throne to become British Prince Consort. He ordered him to Germany where a more suitable suitor awaited; writing: ‘Back to Darnstadt. Don’t be a milksop.’ The parting was not without emotion and Alexander left Victoria his prized dog, Kazbek, as a leaving present. They were not to meet again until 1874 by which time Victoria was dismayed by his changed appearance and openly critical of his indiscretions.
Alexander II’s subsequent marriage to the German Princess – who became known as Maria Alexandrovna following their wedding in St Petersburg in April 1841 – was initially a happy one and she bore him eight children. Alexander’s virility was proven and there were rumors of other offspring; including twin girls born to the British Ambassador’s wife. But it was also the death of his children that reminded him of the fragility of life. His firstborn by Maria, a daughter Alexandra, died aged seven from tuberculosis and Alexander kept her nightgown beneath his pillow for the rest of his life. Their eldest son and heir, Nicholas, also died from consumption in 1865. Both tragedies contributed to Maria’s frail health, something that had already taken a severe down-turn after the birth of her final child in 1860. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and instructed to spend more time in warmer climates, her husband built a sanctuary for her in the Crimea. Her absences paved the way for his infidelities.
Amongst his lovers was an eighteen year old, Marie Dolgorukaia. But it was her sister Catherine who was to steal the Tsar’s heart. After the death of their father, Alexander II had taken on their guardianship and enrolled the girls in the Smolny Institute, in St Petersburg. It was on a visit here that the sisters grabbed his attention. Firstly Marie was employed as a Maid-of-Honor to his wife whilst performing more personal functions; but after less than a year the Tsar turned his eyes to her younger sister Catherine, almost thirty years his junior. Following a brief platonic period, their relationship turned sexual and intensely passionate. Catherine too was appointed as a Maid-of-Honor and assigned her own suite of rooms in the Palace, directly above the personal rooms of the Tsarina.
One love too far?
It was the flaunting of the affair and the damaging effect it had on the Tsarina’s heath that angered many, especially the couple’s children. But Alexander’s first assignation with Catherine, in July 1866, came only a few months after the initial attempt on his life. The awareness that there would be other assassination attempts must have prevailed. He had survived a second by the time Catherine bore their first child together. At a time when life seemed precious and short Alexander turned away from his often morose and religiously maniacal wife towards the intensely sexual mistress. Proof of their passion can be read in the thousands of sexually explicit letters exchanged between them, with almost everyone referring to the act of love-making or ‘bingerle’ [their pet-name for it]. The regularity of his rigor even led to the Tsar’s physicians placing him with a six-week sex-ban. During this period Catherine wrote ‘I confess that I cannot be without your fountain, which I love so… After my six weeks are over I count on renewing my injections.’
It was the permanent presence of the mistress in rooms above the wife that attracted particular criticism. It is alleged that Maria was often disturbed by the noises of Catherine’s children and even as she lay dying was purported to have uttered: “Why is there no one to check those unruly bastards?” But perhaps the most controversial and biggest bone of contention was Alexander’s rush into a morganatic marriage with Catherine forty days after his wife’s death in the summer of 1880. Although tradition dictated a year of mourning, the attempts on Alexander’s life had intensified. He was only too aware of his mortality. He wrote to his sister, Olga, on his decision: ‘I would never have married [Katia Dolgorukova] before a year of mourning if not for the dangerous time we live in and for the hazardous attempts I expose myself to daily which can actually and suddenly end my life.’
History highlights the weaknesses of Russia’s leaders, especially its monarchs who were born, not elected, to rule. Alexander II, like Henry VIII, was blinded by lust. But here was a man who acknowledged he was to be assassinated; who was aware that eventually an attempt would succeed and his many cat-lives would run out. Peter Kropotkin wrote he was: ‘a man of strong passions and weak will.’
And so on closer examination of his flaws it could be argued that the creature most closely characteristic of Tsar Alexander was neither cat nor rat - but that of a typical human being.
You can also read more on Russian history in this article on our blog about Grigori Rasputin here.
- Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid
- Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The last great Tsar