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Robert Van Bergen

Alexander III, the Peasants' Friend


Alexander III.

The atrocious death of The Liberator gave the throne to his son, who succeeded as Alexander III. The new czar was thirty-six years old. Nicholas, the eldest son of Alexander II, had died of consumption in 1865, and, since he had been the heir, his younger brother had not received any special training. His principal tutor had been Pobiédonostzeff, a man who believed in autocracy. He had imbued his pupil with a deeply religious feeling, and imparted to him a thorough knowledge of Russia's history. Alexander III was of powerful build and possessed unusual strength. He was loyal to his word, and tenacious in his likes and dislikes. Married to Princess Dagmar of Denmark, he was a model husband and father. His education made him a firm believer in autocracy.

The sudden and tragic death of his father moved him so deeply that he gave orders that the last wishes of the late czar should be respected. "Change nothing in my father's orders;" he said to Melikof; "they are his last will and testament. He issued two proclamations; in the first he announced that he would strengthen the bond with Poland and Finland, and thus gained the support of the Slavophils and in the second, he reminded the peasants of the freedom given to them by his father, and ordered them to swear allegiance to himself and his heir. Six men and a woman implicated in the murder of the late czar were arrested, tried, condemned to death, and, with the exception of the woman, they were executed on April 15. The czar appointed his former tutor as Procurator of the Holy Synod. Pobiédonostzeff persuaded his pupil that this was not the time to make concessions. On the 11th of May, 1881, Alexander issued a proclamation in which he declared his intention to maintain the absolute power. Melikof resigned as Minister of the Interior and was replaced by Ignatieff, the former Russian Minister at Constantinople.

Shortly after his succession to the throne, Alexander made a journey to Moscow, and was everywhere received with unmistakable tokens of loyalty and affection. This confirmed his opinion that the great bulk of the population was satisfied with the form of government, and strengthened his determination to defend it.

In 1881, an anti-semitic movement was felt in Germany; that is, an outburst of hatred for the Jews broke out, which spread to Russia. It is not generally known that of all the Jews in the world, four fifths live in Russia in the southwest, in an area of 356,681 square miles. This is sometimes mentioned as the Jewish territory. Few of these people engage in agriculture; they are sometimes mechanics, but more often peddlers, store-keepers, bankers and moneylenders. The principal objection to them was that they succeed where others fail. In May, 1881, there were anti-Jewish riots at Kief and other places. Pobiédonostzeff's motto was, "One Russia, One Religion, One Czar;" prompted by him, Alexander did not take any energetic measures to suppress the disorder, for he, too, disliked to see in Russia a people differing in religion, language, and outward appearance. Ignatieff began a system of persecution by removing the Jews who had profited by the late czar's permission to settle anywhere, and when the act which recalled the Middle Ages was hotly condemned by the foreign press, even the Slavophils said that Ignatieff had gone too far. The persecution died out until 1884, when the Jews were deprived of their civil rights, and an attempt was made to compel them to enter the Greek Church. But the Jew is steadfast under persecution, and the only result was that some of them heartily joined the nihilists.

The public condemnation which followed these acts, induced Ignatieff to advise the czar to adopt Melikof's scheme of a constitution. Alexander did not understand this change of views and when de Giers was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ignatieff resigned. He was succeeded by D. Tolstoï.

Misunderstandings and the clashing of interests were dissolving the triple alliance of Russia, Austria, and Germany. This was apparent in the Balkan States which had been formed after the last Russo-Turkish war. Charles I, King of Roumania, was a German prince who mistrusted Russia's schemes. In March, 1882, Prince Milan Obrenovitch of Servia assumed the title of king, and the czar offered no objection. The ruler of Bulgaria was Alexander of Battenberg who was a relative of the czar and had served in the Russian army, which may have been the reason of his appointment. The Russian Minister at his court was evidently of the opinion that his word, as representative of the czar, was law, and when he found out that his orders were set at naught, he withdrew from his post, Whereupon the Russian officers serving in the Bulgarian army, were dismissed. This gave grave offense at St. Petersburg, but the affair was arranged, and the Russian Minister returned. In September, 1885, there was a revolution in Sofia, the capital of Eastern Roumelia, when the crown was offered to Alexander of Battenberg, who accepted. He hastened to inform the czar, who was too angry to pay any attention to letters or telegrams.

Bulgaria and Eastern Roumelia, although united under one prince, sent deputations to St. Petersburg to appease the czar, but were informed that their future would be decided by the great powers. Soon after Servia declared war against Bulgaria; after a few unimportant skirmishes, they were driven back by Prince Alexander, who would have captured the capital Belgrad, if he had not been stopped by Austria's intervention. Alexander, after another fruitless attempt to mollify the czar, applied to the sultan, who appointed him as Governor-general over Eastern Roumelia for five years. The czar protested and invited the powers to a conference which was held at Constantinople on April 5, 1886. To the infinite disgust of the czar, the dispute was decided in favor of Prince Alexander.

Russia, however, had a pro-Russian party in Bulgaria. On August 21, 1886, Prince Alexander was kidnapped and carried across the Danube, after being compelled to abdicate. At Lemberg, in Austrian territory he was set free. The Bulgarians rallied under the President of the National Assembly and forced the pro-Russians to flee, after which Prince Alexander returned on the 3rd of September. Once more he made an attempt to pacify the czar, but when his telegram remained unanswered, he abdicated three days later, rather than involve the country in a war with Russia. He left on the same day, to the sorrow of the people.

The czar was angry. He knew that Austria would not have dared oppose him unless assured of the support of Germany. The feeling in Russia grew more bitter when the election in Bulgaria showed a total defeat of the pro-Russian party, and the crown was offered to Prince Waldemar of Denmark, who declined at the instance of the czar. The Bulgarians then made an offer to Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, who accepted, and in August made his formal entry in Tirnova. Alexander once more protested to the powers, but it passed unheeded and he urged the sultan to expel Ferdinand. Abdul Hamid declined with thanks, preferring to have as neighbor a small independent country to Russia. Alexander then demanded payment of the war indemnity due since the Treaty of San Stefano, but could obtain nothing except a profusion of excuses and apologies. Soon after the sultan had trouble in Armenia, which was Russia's latest resort to arouse public opinion against the Turk.

This is the age of colossal enterprises and combinations in every direction, in politics as well as in other branches of human activity. In Russia Slavophilism, gave way to Panslavism, that is, the scheme to unite all Slav nations. Germany was quick to respond with Pan Germanism, that is, to bring all German-speaking nations under one scepter. The czar, obeying this impulse, made every effort to convert the Baltic provinces,—which Germany called the German Provinces,—into Slavs by making the Russian language the only language that was taught in the schools; and Germany retaliated in the Polish provinces. Under these circumstances friendship ceased. Russia established a protective tariff, which was a rude blow to Germany's commerce; and that country replied by refusing to loan Russia any more money. The czar's government applied to France which responded with unexpected generosity. From that time Russia's internal improvements have been made with French capital.

Prudent as he was, Alexander allowed his anger and dislike to master him, when Prince Alexander of Battenberg was accepted as suitor to a daughter of Queen Victoria. Troops were hurried from the Caucasus into Poland, but Germany averted war by having the match broken off. When the present German emperor, William II, succeeded to the throne, he attempted to make friends with the czar by dismissing Prince Bismarck, in 1890, but Alexander could neither forgive nor forget. It was chiefly owing to this that Russia and France drew closer together until it ended in an alliance.

Strong, self-willed, and masterful, Alexander did love his people in his own way. In January, 1884, he ordered the poll-tax to be abolished, and thereby relieved the peasants of a heavy burden; he also compelled the land-owners to sell to their former serfs the land cultivated by them. Since the price was payable in installments and the owners needed the money, the government assumed the position of creditor, but Alexander reduced the total indebtedness by 12,000,000 rubles, and granted 5,000,000 rubles for the relief of overburdened villages. He calculated that the land would be paid for in 1930, when the title will be vested in the mir,—unless one of his successors should please to appropriate the past payments for other purposes.

In the black earth belt the allotments had been according to the needs of the population, but the increase among the people rendered them too small and several severe famines followed. The government tried to induce the surplus population to emigrate to Siberia, but the Russian peasant lacks education and has been held in tutelage so long that he is not fit for the life of a pioneer settler. Transportation facilities increased by the aid of French capital, and added to the prosperity of merchants and speculators, but did not help the moujik who did not know how to profit by them.

Alexander, as autocrat of all the Russias, did not suffer any authority but his own. The zemstvos, volosts, and mirs, were all placed under officials appointed by him. Every shadow of self-government was destroyed. This demanded a reorganization of the army, which was increased by 900,000 men. The reserves were called out once a year, and drilled as in actual war. Strategic railways were built for the speedy transportation of troops. Coast defenses were constructed and the navy was increased. In 1884, Batoum was closed as a port and converted into a naval base, and when England protested, claiming that this was in violation of the Treaty of Berlin,—as it was,—Russia, referring to the changes in the Balkan, inquired if the duty of observing the treaties was reserved exclusively for Russia.

Alexander's reign was especially discouraging for the Poles who still hoped for the revival of their country, Poles were made into Russians; but Panslavism demanded that the German should be banished. In 1887, Alexander ordered that, when a foreign landowner in Poland died, his estate must be sold unless his heirs had been residents of Poland before this order was published. Germany, suffering from Pan-Germanism, collected several thousand Russian Poles who had settled in Germany, and put them across the frontier. Russia replied by making a law in the Baltic provinces that nothing but Russian could be taught in any school, and that no more Lutheran churches could be built without the permission of the Holy Synod.

Then came Finland's turn. In 1890, Russian money, Russian stamps, and worse than that, Russian taxes were introduced. There were loud protests, which received courteous answers, but the process continued. In 1891, the Finnish Committee at St. Petersburg, which had directed the affairs of Finland, was abolished, and Russian censorship abolished the free press. The Russian language was made obligatory, and the Finns who could afford it emigrated to the United States and settled in the northwest.

In 1890, Alexander ordered the construction of the trans-Siberian railway, of which more will be said in the chapter on Asiatic Russia.

All these years Alexander had battled with nihilism and revolution. His policy neither gave nor asked for quarter. In May, 1888, an army officer named Timovief made an attempt upon the czar's life. On October 29th of the same year, as he was traveling in southern Russia an accident occurred in which twenty-one were killed and many injured; it was ascribed to nihilists, but may have been caused by defects. Be that as it may, Alexander never recovered from the shock. In March, 1890, another plot against his life was discovered. In November, 1891, the secret police came on the scent of a conspiracy at Moscow, and in April, 1894, they learned of one at St. Petersburg. In constant fear of assassination, Alexander resided at Gatschina, twenty-five miles south of St. Petersburg, as in an armed fortress. The never-ceasing tension wore out the strong man. He caught cold and suffering from inflammation of the kidneys he went south, but experienced no relief. He died on the 1st of November, 1894.

In his private life he was essentially a good man; as czar, he acted according to his convictions. He gave much thought to the welfare of the peasants and as such deserved the surname of The Peasants' Friend.