Alexander was born in Saint Petersburg to Grand Duke Paul Petrovich (later Emperor Paul I) and Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg. Shortly after his birth, his grandmother, Catherine the Great, took him away from his father due to her strong aversion to him and to prevent his influence on the future emperor. This familial power struggle led to both sides attempting to manipulate Alexander, leaving him emotionally torn between his grandmother and his father.
Raised in the intellectually stimulating environment of Catherine's court, Alexander absorbed the principles of Rousseau's humanitarian philosophy, while learning the traditions of Russian autocracy. Moreover, Alexander's father instilled in him a paradoxical blend of a theoretical love for humanity coupled with a practical contempt for individuals. These conflicting influences shaped Alexander's dualistic approach in his political decisions.
The death of Catherine in November 1796 brought his father, Paul I, to the throne, whose reform attempts faced opposition from Alexander and several close advisers. The tensions culminated in his murder in March 1801. Following this, Alexander ascended to the throne on March 23, 1801, and was officially crowned in the Kremlin on September 15 of the same year.
One of Alexander’s initial actions was the establishment of the "Committee of Public Safety". This committee, comprising Alexander's young and enthusiastic associates was tasked with formulating a plan for internal reform, with the aim of establishing a constitutional monarchy. The emperor intended to draft a constitution and grant political liberties influenced by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. Additionally, he sought to address the issue of serfdom in Russia, though this goal was only realized in 1861 during the reign of his grandson, Alexander II.
Still, notable reforms were taken, including granting freedom to publishing houses, winding down intelligence service activities, and prohibiting torture. However, legal reforms, including the codification of laws initiated in 1801, faced obstacles and were not fully implemented during his reign. The constitution remained unsigned, and the status of peasants saw little improvement.
In terms of foreign policy, Alexander's political decisions were marked by shifts and complexities. Initially, he was enamoured with the idea of a European confederation and influenced by Enlightenment ideals. Consequently, he reversed his father's policy, denouncing the League of Neutrals and making peace with the UK. He also had a brief admiration of Napoleon, entertaining thoughts of an alliance. However, events such as the murder of the Duc d'Enghien altered his perception and set the stage for his opposition to the French leader during the Napoleonic Wars.
This conflict showcased Alexander's complex role in European politics. In this regard, he articulated an idealistic vision, aiming for the triumph of "the sacred rights of humanity" and proposing a general treaty to establish rules among European states. However, the practical application of these principles faced challenges, and Alexander's alliance with Napoleon eventually soured. The campaign of 1812 marked a significant turning point in their relationship. The occupation of Moscow by French forces and the desecration of the Kremlin fuelled his passionate hatred for Napoleon.
Later in his reign, Alexander began to distance himself from liberal ideals and moved towards a more conservative stance, particularly after events like the revolutionary conspiracy among officers and the plot to kidnap him. Moreover, he faced the dilemma of Greek independence, which made Alexander torn between his dream of a confederation of Europe and his role as a leader of the Orthodox crusade against the Ottoman Empire.
In the autumn of 1825, Alexander contracted typhus while undertaking a voyage to the south of Russia. He eventually succumbed to the illness in the Russian city of Taganrog on December 1, 1825, and was interred at the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg on March 13, 1826.
The circumstances surrounding Alexander's death gave rise to rumours and conspiracy theories. Some speculated that his death and funeral were staged, and there were claims that he renounced the crown and lived out his life in solitude. Others even suggested that a substitute was buried as Alexander or that the grave was empty.
The confusion extended to matters of succession. Constantine Pavlovich, the heir presumptive, had renounced his rights of succession in 1822, a fact not publicly known at the time of Alexander's death. Consequently, the population initially swore allegiance to Constantine. The revelation of the true order of succession later identified Nicholas I as the rightful heir.
The aftermath also witnessed the Decembrist revolt, an attempt by liberal-minded officers to defend Constantine's supposed rights to the throne. However, Nicholas I ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion, sending its leaders to the gallows or Siberia.
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