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The last years of imperial Russia

Catherine’s briefly reigning son, Paul, is remembered for two things. First, he declared himself grand master of the recently dispossessed Knights of Malta, a move more calculated to gain control of Malta than to support the work of the Knights. Second, out of dislike for his mother, he altered the succession law to exclude females from inheriting the throne. This would have tragic consequences a century later as the last Tsar and Tsaritsa risked the wellbeing of the country for the sake of a male heir. Paul was assassinated and replaced by his son, Alexander.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Russia was by far the largest country in the world. Not only had it reached the Pacific, but it had established colonies in Russian America, or Alaska. A generation later it would even establish Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, which it soon abandoned. At home, however, Napoleon was on the march and, when Catherine’s grandson, Alexander I, became emperor, he was faced with this looming threat from the west. Although Alexander made peace with the French emperor in 1807, relations worsened between the two. In 1812 France invaded Russian soil.

Alexander’s forces dealt a decisive blow to the French, from which they were not to recover. Russian troops would find themselves in Paris at the end of the war, apparently contributing the Russian word bistro (“quickly! “) to designate the French equivalent of a pub or bar. Like his grandmother, Alexander began his reign as a reforming tsar but became increasingly conservative with time. The end of his reign came under mysterious circumstances and coincided with the Decembrist uprising in 1825, which saw a group of young military officers stage an unsuccessful rebellion to back their demands for a constitutional monarchy under

Alexander’s younger brother Constantine — the same Constantine whose grandmother’s ambitions would have sent him to Constantinople. However, as Constantine had no interest in the throne, Alexander was succeeded by his youngest brother, Nicholas I, whose autocratic and military style earned him the title, “Gendarme of Europe. ” Deeply conservative, he sought to uphold Orthodoxy in religion, Russian nationality and autocracy in government, as part of his doctrine of “Official Nationality. ” When in 1848 another wave of revolutions broke out in Europe, Nicholas’ troops helped to crush these in some places, most otably in Hungary.

In 1835 a new code of laws was issued; this was primarily the work of Count Mikhail Speransky, who had been Alexander’s prime minister. Despite the reactionary tone of Nicholas’ reign, Russia had entered its golden age of literary and artistic endeavour. Alexander Pushkin (1799- 1837) was certainly the greatest of the literary figures of this era, his works eventually to attain for Russians something of the status of Shakespeare’s for the English-speaking peoples. In music Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) would have a similar stature. The brilliance of the Russian ontribution in these fields can hardly be overestimated.

One can scarcely list all of the names: Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821- 1881), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Piotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881), Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov (1844-1908), and Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). Remarkably, the 20th century did not dim but only increased the Russian cultural achievement, even after the Bolsheviks came to power. Nicholas’ reign came to an end during the ill-fated Crimean War, in which the failings of his domestic and foreign policies became painfully pparent.

Nicholas was succeeded in 1855 by his son, Alexander II, whose reign was comparatively liberal and tolerant. Alexander is best known for having freed the serfs in 1861. In 1864 he established the first real system of local government, based on the zemstvo, a local assembly representing the landowners, the newly freed peasants, and the townspeople. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would make much of the precedent this reform created in making his case for a locally-based democratic system for post-communist Russia. ) The same year saw judicial reform based on western odels of jurisprudence.

Finally Alexander reformed the military, which had done so poorly against the Ottoman Turks, the British and the French in the Crimea. During Alexander’s reign an unsuccessful Polish uprising took place in 1863. In 1877 Russia fought a war with Turkey, came close to taking Constantinople outright, and would have created a large, pro-Russian Bulgaria in the abortive Treaty of San Stefano. However, the western powers intervened to prevent Russia collecting the spoils of victory, convened the Congress of Berlin the following year, and in the process parcelled out uch of the world amongst themselves.

On the verge of granting his people a long sought after constitution, Alexander was assassinated by anarchists in 1881. Alexander II If his father’s murderers thought they would browbeat Alexander’s son and successor, Alexander III, into implementing more reforms and more quickly, they severely miscalculated. The younger Alexander eschewed reform altogether and sought to rein in the various revolutionary movements, with harsh means if necessary. Alexander was a strong, decisive monarch, of large stature and imposing presence.

Among other things he sought to ussify the non-Russian nationalities within the empire, even those, such as the Poles and Finns, whose lands possessed the formal status of grand duchies in mere association with the empire. His chief advisor was the deeply reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), who was also tutor to the tsarevich, the future Nicholas II. Alexander married a daughter of Denmark’s King Christian IX, Dagmar, who took the name Maria Fyodorovna. She was sister to the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, thus making Alexander nearly a brother-in-law to the future King Edward VII.

In this ime before the outbreak of the Great War, Europe’s royal families were increasingly interrelated, a fact which did little to tame the dangerous rivalries among their governments. Alexander died suddenly in 1894, and was succeeded on the throne by his unimposing and incompetent son, Nicholas II. As reactionary as his late father, Nicholas was nevertheless well-intended and deeply loved his people. He was also a devoted family man with little interest in affairs of state, but with a strong belief in God’s providence — bordering on fatalism — which he shared with his wife, Alexandra.

Born Alix of Hesse- Darmstadt, Alexandra exercised considerable influence over her husband, to the detriment of the country as a whole, particularly during the Great War. Nicholas’ reign was nothing short of disastrous, as Russia was defeated by Japan in 1904 and the rgime collapsed altogether in 1917. Although a revolution in 1905 was unsuccessful, it did lead, against Nicholas’ wishes, to the establishment of constitutional government and the enactment of the Russian Fundamental Law of 1906, which provided for, among other things, an elected Duma or parliament.

Solzhenitsyn believes that his rgime, under the reforms of Prime Minister Piotr Stolypin (1862- 1911), could have led to representative government within a stable constitutional monarchy. Of course, this was not to be. Russia entered the Great War on the side of Serbia, France and Britain. This bled the country’s resources, both human and otherwise, and served only to make way for the revolutions of 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Tragically, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children would die at the hands of the Bolsheviks in the cellar of a house in Yekaterinburg the following year.

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