Helen Saker-Parsons follows up her article on Tsar Alexander II, and considers how Alexander II’s death influenced his son, Tsar Alexander III. The results included suspicion against those inside and outside of Russia, and making scapegoats of the Russian Jewish population.


Alexander witnessed his father’s body as it was stretchered up the stairs of his home in the Winter Palace; the stubs of his blown-off legs hemorrhaging blood onto the plush carpet. His father was Alexander II, Tsar of Russia and assassinated by social revolutionaries. His son, the new Tsar Alexander III, accepted that he was their target now: affirmation of which came on his return to his own St Petersburg residence, Anichkov Palace, where he discovered a trench had already been dug, encircling the building, and several armed guards put in place. Alexander III knew that his father had survived several assassination attempts, the threats of which lingered throughout his reign. Indeed, the policies the new tsar pursued and the way he lived his life were governed by fear. Although physically strong, he was no match for an organized group of assassins. To protect himself and his family he was forced to assume a near isolated existence, away from the social whirl of the Imperial court; and moreover to introduce a set of domestic and foreign policies which would keep his enemies at a distance.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia in the 1880s.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia in the 1880s.

St Petersburg itself symbolized revolutionary spirit: a contemporary English observer remarked how the city reeked of dynamite. Following Alexander II’s assassination in March 1881, Alexander III took his family and fled to their country residence, Gatchina, some thirty-five miles to the south.  Here he chose to live more like a prisoner than an Emperor. He dismissed the opulent rooms and instead moved into converted servant quarters that were low ceilinged and cramped. He surrounded himself with Victorian bric-a-brac to further the sense of claustrophobia. Rumors abounded abroad about the new tsar’s confinement.  He listened to the advice of his former tutor: the reactionary and influential Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who warned him to “look under all the furniture at night and lock the doors not only in the bedroom, but in all the adjacent rooms, right up to the outside door.” He further advised to “check every evening, before going to bed, that the sentries are still there – their throats can so easily be cut.” Alexander kept a revolver beneath his pillow and allegedly fatally shot an aide-de-camp who surprised him as well as a guard who reached behind his back for a cigarette. Rumors abounded abroad about the new tsar’s confinement. To counter these claims, he and his family took frequent public walks in a nearby park but the image of freedom was an illusion: the park was reached via an underground tunnel from the Palace and a fear of large crowds forced Alexander to delay his coronation for over fourteen months.


Enemies everywhere

It was this sense of mistrust that governed his foreign policy. Often referred to as ‘Alexander, the peace-maker,’ it was more paranoia that forced his decisions. Although he ratified the Three Emperors League with Germany and Austria-Hungary, which his father had initiated in 1881, he failed to further extend the alliance in 1887 when he became suspicious that Austria was acting against Russian interests in Bulgaria. Instead he signed a Russo-German neutrality pact, but again refused to extend this in 1890, when the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm pushed Alexander into the hands of the French. Alexander was suspicious of the ambitious German ruler and in 1892 signed a military pact with France to counterbalance German aggression in Europe. But ultimately the Tsar believed he had only two natural allies – his army and his navy.

Alexander III acknowledged that a threat also existed from within. His domestic policy was governed by his desire to maximize the security of his dynasty. He followed the doctrine of his grandfather, Tsar Nicholas I, with ‘orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.’ Only by having one religion, one people and one leader could he maintain peace within Russia and eliminate threats from the Radicals and Reactionaries. He pursued a policy of Russification, promoting the Slavic elements within the Empire and removing Prussian ones. All aspects of life were affected from Alexander sporting a Slav-like beard to persecuting other religions. Russian art, music and architecture were promoted. School curriculums were altered to reflect the glories of Russia and universities were instructed on what to teach.


Blaming the Jews…

Perhaps his most controversial policy was the persecution of the Jews. Pobedonostsev’s formula for the Jewish was:  ‘one-third was to emigrate, one-third was to die, and one-third to disappear (or be converted).’ Strict quotas were introduced on the number of Jews admitted to higher education and Jews were banned altogether from many professions. Their settlement was restricted to nominated areas and towns closed to them. In 1891, almost twenty thousand Jewish inhabitants were evicted from Moscow. Although the pogroms - which were a feature of Tsarist Russia from 1881 - were not government led, they were welcomed by it. The Jews were a useful scapegoat and a focus for hatred: diverting attention away from revolutionary activity. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had forced many uneducated peasants into the cities where they came across the wealthier Jews who they resented. This hatred grew as an international agricultural depression was blamed on the Jews who largely controlled the trade and merchant houses.

But the tsar could not divert all hatred from him. The social revolutionaries needed to be suppressed and Alexander achieved this through censorship [the country’s main literary journal Notes of the Fatherland was closed in 1884 for its supposed support of Populist political ideas], the promotion of police powers and consequent clampdown on civil liberties. In 1881 the Law on Exceptional Measures, - in effect martial law - was introduced; meetings of any kind could be banned, and the police were given extensive powers of search and arrest, while liberal judges and officials were dismissed from office. Perhaps most importantly, a new security division of the police was founded - known as the Okhrana. Not only were they responsible directly for the protection of the Tsar and his family but also for tracking down political opponents and radicals. This they achieved through subversion and infiltration. They were successful and effective: by 1894, over 5,400 people had been exiled to Siberia or sentenced to hard labor. The long hands of the Okhrana operated not only from the major cities within Russia but those European hotbeds of revolutionary behavior such as Paris and London.

Alexander III kept his enemies at a distance and flexed his muscles on the international and domestic scene. Even so, his desire to appear powerful and fearless infiltrated every aspect of his life, and ironically was to contribute to his death. At six feet four and with a large stature (his nieces and nephews referred to him as ‘Uncle Fatty’) Alexander III was an imposing physical character. He kept his children amused with feats of strength such as ripping whole decks of cards in half and bending fireside pokers into bizarre shapes. But his most significant display of strength came following a train derailment near Borki in 1888, on one of the few occasions he had travelled beyond the confines of the royal palaces. As bodies lay amongst the tangled mess he reportedly supported the roof of the dining car in which he and his family were travelling, allowing them all to escape. He suffered a trauma to his back and damage to his kidney, heralding the onset of kidney disease that contributed to his death six years later. An alleged tendency towards alcoholism brought about by the stresses of confinement worsened his health. Although Tsar Alexander III escaped the fate of his father and son, he remained imprisoned by the fears his role as ruler of an unruly Russia invoked and ultimately died an untimely death at the age of 49.


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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?

Tsar Alexander II, circa 1865.

Tsar Alexander II, circa 1865.

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.


Helen Saker-Parsons is the author of a book about an Allied soldier who is captured and held prisoner in Italy during World War II. The book, A Captive Life, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


You can also read more on Russian history in this article on our blog about Grigori Rasputin here.


Selected References

  • Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid

  • Edvard Radzinsky, Alexander II: The last great Tsar