Death of a Disillusioned Tsar: December 1, 1825

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


By 1824, Tsar Aleksandr I of Russia was no longer the young emperor who had once favored Liberal reforms and idolized Napoleon Bonaparte. He had become, in fact, a faithful follower of Austria’s Prince Metternich. At the Congress of Troppau in 1820, he had told Metternich he was sorry for the Liberal ideas he had held in earlier years. “I regret the waste of time, which we must try to retrieve,” Aleksandr had said. “You have correctly judged the state of affairs. Tell me what you desire and what you wish me to do, and I will do it.” Just like Metternich, Aleksandr had come to think that Liberalism led only to revolution and anarchy, and rulers must do whatever they could to rid their realms of it.


Tsar and Emperor Aleksandr I in 1824

In Russia, Aleksandr turned back the Liberal reforms he had earlier supported. He placed a strict censorship on the press and restricted the freedom of university professors to teach what they wished. His government crushed attempts made by Russians to oppose government policies. Earlier in his reign, Aleksandr had wanted to free the serfs; but, by the 1820s, he did not support measures to do this.

An uprising of the Greeks against the Muslim Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1821 inspired many in Europe to cheer on and even actively support what they considered a noble struggle for freedom. But even though the Greeks were Orthodox Christians and Aleksandr saw himself as the protector of Orthodox Church, he did nothing to help the rebels. When on April 22, 1821, the Turks hanged the Greek Orthodox primate, Patriarch Gregorios of Constantinople, Aleksandr did nothing except allow Gregorios’s body to be buried in the Russian city of Odessa. Like Metternich, Aleksandr did not want to encourage any rebellion against “legitimate authority” — even when that authority, like the Turks, had for centuries brutally persecuted Christians.

Though he sternly put down Liberalism where he found it, Aleksandr had come to think that it was his fault that Russia had become infected with Liberal ideas and secret societies. And he blamed himself for all the ills of his homeland. When he was told that the great floods that devastated St. Petersburg in 1824 were for the sins of Russians, Aleksandr denied it. “No! For mine!” he said. Plots against his government, he said, had arisen because he had “shared and encouraged these illusions and errors” of Liberalism. Finally, in 1824, he told his brother, the Grand Duke Nikolai (Nicholas), that he would abandon the throne. “I have resolved to give up the duties imposed upon me and retire from the world,” he said.

Aleksandr, however, never found the opportunity to “retire from the world” in this way. He died of a fever on December 1, 1825, while on a tour of Crimea, in the south.


An Imperial Hermit?


When Tsar Aleksandr I’s body was brought to St. Petersburg for burial, the public was not allowed to look on it, as had been the custom with tsars before their burial. It was said the body was too decomposed. This led in later years to a legend among the Russian peasants that Tsar Aleksandr did not actually die in 1825 but went secretly to Siberia, where he became a hermit. There, it was said, he lived under the name Fyodor Kuzmich and became a miracle worker and a prophet.

Fyodor Kuzmich (canonized a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church)

In 1864, a hermit with the name Fyodor Kuzmich died at Tomsk in Siberia at an advanced age. It is told that Starets Fyodor was a tall man and aristocratic in his bearing, could speak several languages, and entertained visitors with stories of court life in St. Petersburg. It has been said that members of the imperial family themselves visited Fyodor, and when they did so, they paid him only the utmost respect — just as if he were the tsar himself.


"Indecipherable, Uncorrected Horrors"


This is what the composer Louis Spohr said of Ludwig van Beethoven's Late Quartets, to which this String Quartet Number 15 in A Minor belongs. Spohr's quip represents the incomprehension with which these quartets were received at the time of their composition. Beethoven composed the A-minor quartet in 1825 during an illness that confined him to his bed. The Andante movement he titled Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit ("A sacred thanksgiving song to the divinity for recovery") in thanksgiving for his recovery. The quartet was premiered November 6, 1825, a little less than month before Tsar Aleksandr's death.


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