Alexander I (from Robinson and Beard)

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Source: James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, History of Europe (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1921), pp. 406-08.

This is an excerpt from Robinson and Beard's classic history textbook of 1921.

731. Growing Importance of Russia in World History.
During the nineteenth century Russia came steadily into ever closer relations with western Europe. Although still a backward country in many respects, she was busily engaged in modernizing herself. The works of some of her writers are widely read in foreign lands, especially those of Leo Tolstoy. The music of Rubinstein and Tschaikowsky is as highly esteemed in London or New York as in Petrograd or Moscow. Even in the field of science such names as that of Mendeleeff, the chemist, and of Metchnikoff, the biologist, are well known to their fellow workers in Germany, France, England, and America. In 1917 the great social revolution in Russia roused the keen interest of the whole world. It becomes, therefore, a matter of vital interest to follow the changes which are turning the tide of modern civilization into eastern Europe.

732. Russia under Alexander I.
When, in 1815, Tsar Alexander I returned to St. Petersburg after the close of the Congress of Vienna, he could view his position and recent achievements with pride. He had participated in Napoleon's overthrow, and had succeeded in uniting the rulers of western Europe in that Holy Alliance (§ 367) which he had so much at heart. But his chief interests lay, of course, in his own vast empire. He was the undisputed and autocratic ruler of more than half of the entire continent of Europe, not to speak of the almost interminable reaches of northern Asia which lay beneath his scepter.

733. Heterogeneous Peoples under Russian Rule.
Under Alexander's dominion there were many races and peoples, differing in customs, language, and religion--Finns, Germans, Poles, Jews, Tartars, Armenians, Georgians, and Mongols. The Russians themselves, it is true, had colonized the southern plains of European Russia and had spread even into Siberia. They made up a large proportion of the population of the empire, and their language was everywhere taught in the schools and used by the officials. The people of the grand duchy of Finland, speaking Swedish and Finnish, did not like their incorporation with Russia; and the Poles, recalling the time when their kingdom far outshone the petty duchy of Moscow among the European powers, still hoped that the kingdom of Poland might form an independent nation with its own language and constitution.

In the time of Alexander I the Russians had not begun to flock to the cities, which were small and ill‑constructed compared with those of western Europe. The great mass of the population still lived in the country, and more than half of them were serfs, as ignorant and wretched as those of France or England in the twelfth century.

734. Absolutism and Liberal Ideas.
Alexander I had inherited, as "Autocrat of all the Russias," a despotic power over his subjects as absolute as that to which Louis XIV laid claim. He could make war and conclude peace at will, freely appoint or dismiss his ministers, and order the arrest, imprisonment, exile, or execution of anyone he chose, without consulting or giving an account to any living being. Even the Russian national Church was under his personal control.

During his early years Alexander entertained liberal ideas, but after his return from the Congress of Vienna he began to dismiss his liberal advisers. He became as apprehensive of revolution as his friend Metternich, and threw himself into the arms of the "Old Russian" party, which obstinately opposed the introduction of all Western ideas. The Tsar was soon denouncing liberalism as a frightful illusion which threatened the whole social order. He permitted his officials to do all they could to stamp out the ideas which he had himself formerly done so much to encourage. The censorship of the press put an end to the liberal periodicals which had sprung up, and professors in the universities were dismissed for teaching modern science. The attraction of the new ideas was, however, so strong that the Tsar could not prevent some of his more enlightened subjects from following eagerly the course of the revolutionary movements in western Europe and reading the new books dealing with scientific discoveries and questions of political and social reform.