Sunday, March 13, 2016

Today in History

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Today in 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb thrown at him in the streets of St. Petersburg. It was the second of a three bomb plot. The first bomb was thrown under his carriage, which killed one soldier but only damaged the bulletproof carriage. Alexander was forced to emerge from the carriage and that's when another bomb was thrown at him by a second conspirator. Twenty people were hurt in the blast. Alexander's legs were shredded, his face and stomach wounded. He was rushed to his Winter Palace and died shortly after receiving the Last Rites.

Czar Alexander II had been the target of assassination attempts for 15 years. Most of them, including the one that finally killed him, were the work of the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will) which was a socialist terrorist organization that later became the Socialist Revolutionary Party. The Narodnaya Volya was comprised mainly of Russia's intelligentsia, who had taken it upon themselves to lead the peasantry into revolt.

Czar Alexander himself is known as the Great Reformer of Russia. When Alexander ascended to the throne in 1855, after the death of his father, Russia was in the middle of the bloody and expensive Crimean war against France and England, and the country was suffering from the effects of widespread corruption and bribery-taking in government. Alexander, after the defeat at Sebastopol, wrapped up the war in a  year by negotiating for peace and then embarked on a series of radical reforms. He wanted to develop Russia's natural resources, to stop having to depend on the landed aristocracy to control the peasants, and to clean up the bureacracy in his administration. He was a practical sovereign. In 1867, recognizing that Alaska was indefensible from British or Canadian conquest, he sold it to the United States for a decent amount of money (roughly $200 million in today's currency).

Alexander's greatest reform was in 1861, when he emancipated the serfs from a centuries old tradition of bondage, transforming them, by decree into independent communal proprietors of the land they farmed.

Despite Alexander's many reforms and generally liberal policies, he was a strict imperialist and dealt severely with rebellion attempts as thousands of Polish rebels learned when they were sent to Siberia after the after the January Uprising of 1863.  Also as a result of the uprising, Poland and Lithuania were excluded from reforms, and were under a form of martial law for the next 40 years. In contrast, Alexander rewarded loyal Finland by encouraging Finnish nationalism and introducing reforms to Finland.

Alexander also became known as the Tsar-Liberator of Bulgaria after he declared war against the Ottoman Empire and secured the independence of Bulgaria from the Turks.

Ironically, on the very day Alexander II was assassinated, he had just signed the Loris-Melikov constitution, which established two legislative bodies of indirectly elected representatives. Had Alexander lived, he might eventually have steered Russian to a form of parliamentary government. However, his successor Alexander III immediately repealed that decision and rolled back some of Alexander II's reforms,  returning to a more traditional Tsarist rule.

The story of Alexander II's reign, reforms, and assassination is oddly relevant this year, I think.

April 29 1818
March 13 1881
reign began  March 2 1855

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