History Today eBook: The Second World War

Alexander III, Tsar of Russia, 1881-1889

John Etty assesses the historical significance of one of the lesser known Tsars.

The reign of Alexander III will always be compared either with that of his ‘liberating’ father, Alexander II, or of his ill-fated son, Nicholas II. While it is easy to see Alexander III as the repressive antithesis of his father, or the strong autocrat his son wished he could be, it is important to assess Alexander III’s significance in his own right.

Alexander and the Romanovs

Alexander III of Russia was born on 26th February 1845. Clumsy and gruff as a child, he grew up to be a man of great physical strength. Everything about him suggested imperial power. He was six feet four inches tall, broad and very strong. Stories circulated about Tsar Alexander bending (and restraightening) iron fire pokers, crushing silver roubles in his fingers, and tearing packs of cards in half for the entertainment of his children, and about the occasion in 1888 when, after the imperial train was derailed by terrorists at Borki, he held up the wrecked carriage's roof on his shoulders while his family excaped. (It seems that Alexander's kidney disease dated back to this incident.) The first Tsar to wear a full beard since the time of Peter the Great, whos Europeanising reforms change fashions to such an extent that untrimmed facial hair had become a sign of lack of western sophistication. Alexander suited the imperil Russian stereotype. He could be rude and blunt in conversation, and was terrifying when angry. He used foul language when frustrated and senior officials were intimidated by him, though they felt secure when working for him, partly because they were confident of his personal support and partly because Alexander's physical and personal strength heightened the sense of autocratic might surrounding him.

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