Russia’s Answer to Abraham Lincoln

He said “It is not difficult to rule Russia, but it is useless.” Napoleon III gave him a bitchin’ bulletproof carriage, he had a crush on Queen Victoria, and he freed 22 million people. He was Tsar Alexander II.

Alexander Nikolaevich was born April 1818 to Tsar Nicholas I and Charlotte of Prussia in Moscow. One expects an autocrat to be a bit of a bastard, but Alexander’s father really took the concept to heart. Nicholas I was a deeply reactionary fan of censorship and squashing any and all dissent, which is maybe understandable when you’re faced with the Decembrist Revolt shortly after getting the throne.

Let’s put it this way: Nicholas asked his young son what he would’ve done with those December rebels– Alexander said he would’ve forgiven them. The tzarevich got a helluva response: “This is how you rule… die on the steps of the throne but don’t give up power!” Prescient (and badass) advice…

Tsar Czar Alexander IISo, the world in which the blue-eyed, handsome, emotional, kind-hearted, girl-crazy, easy-weeper, lovelorn, Alexander (known affectionately as Sasha) is growing up is a tough one: repressive, paranoid, war-torn, and deeply dangerous if you chose to speak out against authorities. Serfs are owned, unable to leave the estate where they work, unable to own land, and they were sold, traded, even mortgaged.

He was meticulously groomed to inherit this vast, multiethnic empire. In addition to learning languages, physics, military training, and even woodworking, Alexander was tutored by Vasily Zhukovsky, a Romantic poet, translator, and liberal thinker, who would deeply impact him.

Kicking Things Off With a War

In 1855, it was time to put it to the test. At the age of 37, Alexander ascended a throne in chaos and peril. Russia was in the midst of the disastrous Crimean War. This particular 3-ish year war was confusing even at the time, but suffice it to say, it was a battle over religion–shocking– that pitted the French, British, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Like most wars, it was an awful, deadly mess but it had a few rays of light– providing the source material for Tennyson’s epic The Charge of the Light Brigade, plus Florence Nightingale (and other badass women) decided to bring medicine and hygiene to battlefields. The war also had the dubious distinction of showing Russia how far behind Europe it was in terms of modernization.

Newly-crowned Tsar Alexander II decided to end the damn thing. Actually, everyone kind of wanted the war to end– to give you an idea of how over it people were, British people were throwing snowballs in Trafalgar Square in protest. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856.

Freed up from inter-nation battling, Alexander set about reforming and liberalizing Russia. He:

  • Sold Alaska to the US for a cool $7.2 million (hundreds of millions in today’s money) and traded the Kuril Islands to Japan for Sakhalin Island.
  • Built train tracks, allowing for expanded travel, trade, and commerce.
  • Made all social classes eligible for conscription, not just the peasants and Jewish citizens and then reformed the military, including banning corporal punishment.
  • He overhauled the judicial system, creating an independent judiciary, open court trials and lifetime judge appointments.
  • Created the zemstvo, a kind of local government that allowed people to have some say in their day to day lives. The zemstvos dealt with things like education, medical services, maintaining roads, etc.
  • The extreme repression of Jewish people was relaxed a bit– allowing the upper class to move out of the Pale of Settlement, the only area Jews had been formerly allowed to live in.
  • He helped created the independent Bulgarian state after liberating them from Ottoman rule in 1877. They are still fans of Alexander II today, calling him “Tsar-Liberator.”
  • In addition to being Tsar of Russia, he was also Grand Duke of Finland and he increased their autonomy and elevated Finnish to a national language. There he’s still known as “The Good Tsar.” (It’s thought he felt testing out new fangled liberal ideas was easier in smaller countries than in Russia, so Finland was a bit of a petri dish for him).

The Big One: Emancipation

His big liberalizing event was emancipating the serfs in 1861. His father, Nicholas, and many others, chief among them Catherine the Great, had considered freeing the serfs, but it was a difficult undertaking, deeply unpopular among the aristocracy who owned said-serfs.

There was fear of rebellion when Alexander signed the decree, but the cannons weren’t needed. Serfs were now free– to marry, own property, and trade. It wasn’t perfect though as they still owed labor to their former owners. After a few years, the government would pay 80% of their “worth” to the former owners, but the serfs had to find the money to pay the difference. Among other complications, like where did the land come from that they got?

emancipation of the serfs

Some Not So Great Stuff:

  • He squashed the constitution proposed by the Moscow Assembly, convinced Russia needed to be an autocracy. Daddy issues may have something to do with that.
  • Alexander II was also King of Poland (it’s a long story), but he did not extend his liberal policies to them. When they (unsurprisingly) pushed back, Russia ruthlessly executed hundreds and banished even more Poles to Siberia.
  • He enacted martial law in Lithuania, banning native languages from print and banning Polish entirely– both spoken and written– except in private.
  • At the end of the Caucasian War (a nearly 50-year war as a result of the Russian annexation of North Caucasus), he ordered ethnic cleansing of Circassian tribes, a broad term for warrior-nations (Weird fact: they still provide the bodyguards for rulers in Syria and Jordan). 400,000 were deported to the Ottoman Empire, many thousands died.

From Russia With Love

empress maria alexandrovna
Empress Maria Alexandrovna

He found time to marry, choosing Princess Marie of Hesse and by Rhine (her name became Maria Alexandrovna after marriage), whom he fell in love with on his big European tour as a tsarevich. Impressively, he was well aware of the rumors that her father was actually a stable master, but he married her anyway. This is after he’d fallen for the 20-year old Queen Victoria– it seems the feeling was mutual, but their union was politically impossible.

Princess Catherine Dolgorukaya
Princess Catherine Dolgorukaya

He and Maria Alexandrovna, who was much beloved by the people despite her anxiety rashes, had eight children, seven of which survived. Eventually, she grew ill and travelled abroad a lot, so he found himself a mistress: Princess Catherine Dolgorukaya and they had three children.

(Quick note on Russian titles: “prince/princess” aren’t the same as in British aristocracy. In Russia, they denote rank and nobility, likely even familial ties to the ruling family, but not ruling power. What fairy tales traditionally call Prince/Princess would have the title of Grand Duke/ Grand Duchess in Russia).

In Princess Catherine, Alexander found a like mind, full of liberal ideas. They met for the first time when she was just a young girl, but he met her again when she was 16 after her father died. She and her siblings were being educated at Alexander’s expense at a school for high born girls and it seems he was smitten. Alexander had her installed as a lady-in-waiting to his wife. Despite the pressure to become his mistress, a coveted albeit difficult position, she refused. It wasn’t until after an assassination attempt and his son and heir apparent died that they became… more than friends. She wrote later that he told her “Now you are my secret wife. I swear that if I am ever free, I will marry you.” A promise he would keep.

They wrote sexy letters daily, he sketched her in the nude (she was nude, not he. Or hell, maybe he sketched nude, reader’s choice), they had four children, three of whom survived. All this won her few admirers, especially among Alexander’s family who feared she was trying to become empress, trying to supplant his legitimate heirs with her own, and that she was to blame for all these reforms. Story goes, however, Alexander’s wife asked to meet their children and even blessed them. Class move.

After Maria Alexandrovna died, he married Catherine quickly– before the church imposed mourning period was up– gave her a title, and legitimized their children. It was a morganatic wedding, meaning the children weren’t eligible for succession or imperial titles. None of this pleased the people or Alexander’s family, but he did it fearing she would be left with nothing if he were assassinated.

Which, turns out, was a very legitimate fear for poor Alex.

All his liberalizing fun came to an abrupt end in 1866 when the first of five assassination attempts was carried out.  His reforms, ironically, stoked revolution and gave rise to a new beast: the intelligentsia. These were the well-educated but lower class Russians who dreamed of revolution via regicide. They set the tone that would inspire Lenin when his turn came…

The many times people tried to kill Alexander II:

  • 1866: St. Petersburg: An expelled student named Dmitry Karakozov joined a revolutionary group aptly named Hell and was chosen to kill the tsar to create a workers’ paradise. Sure. He aimed at Alexander in his carriage but a man in the crowd jostled him and he missed.
  • 1867: A Pole named shot at the carriage carrying Alexander, his two sons, and Napoleon III at the Paris World Fair. The gun misfired, wounding a horse.
  • April 1879: While walking to the Square of the Guards Staff, he came face to face with a revolver-wielding student named Alexander Soloviev. Impressively, Alexander had the wits to run in a zig-zag: one shot grazed his coat and another ricocheted around him. Soloviev was arrested and hanged.
  • December 1879: The Narodnaya Volya, or The People’s Will, believed killing the tsar would spark revolt, so they tried their willing hand. They tried to blow up his train car but missed it.
  • February 1880: The People’s Will doggedly tried again, this time taking it to his front door. A carpenter snuck tons of nitroglycerin into the Winter Palace, and even once had the chance to kill Alexander in his study but couldn’t bring himself to kill a man with his back turned. Instead, they planned on killing the whole family with a bomb! Way more respectable. The People’s Will set off 300 pounds of nitro under the dining room, but Alexander was late to dinner and neither he nor his family was harmed. However, it did kill 12 people and wounded 69 others. That probably wasn’t the people’s will. Catherine, his mistress, spotted the security flaws and tried to fix them– hell, she even smelled the nitroglycerin– but was told it was just gas. No one listened because women.

All this would-be murdering took its toll on the Tsar. The guy’s doing his best for his people and all the thanks he gets is bullet. And several bombs. It was a vicious circle: Alexander’s bodyguards and secret police cracked down on the would-be killers, the dispossessed got more angry and determined, and then got cracked down on more… Radicals successfully a number of other officials.

Little did they know– and probably little would it have matter to the most extreme– Alexander was slowly moving in the direction of a constitution. He wasn’t about to make Russia a republic, but he recognized that autocracy must change with the times. He planned to unveil this reform the day he crowned his unpopular mistress-turned-wife, Catherine.

Sixth Time’s a Bloody Charm…

Some think the police were just negligent, while others suggest there were traitors in their midst. But suspiciously the head of the police later said “I owe my career to Alexander II, but it’s good they got rid of him or he’d have led Russia to disaster.”

March 1st was a Sunday, and on Sundays, Alexander reviewed the Guards. He left the Winter Palace feeling pretty good– they were going to announce his sexy new reforms in three days.

Off he rode in his gifted bulletproof carriage, flanked by six Cossacks on horseback. Two sleighs followed. The review went well and Alexander ordered his crew to take him home. Revolutionaries had staked out the route for months, planting bombs under the street, but also ready to ambush him on the secondary route if he chose that instead.

He chose the secondary route instead. At 2:15 pm, a bomb was tossed under Alexander’s carriage horses. The carriage successfully protected the tsar, but a Cossack and a guy at the wrong place at the seriously wrong time were mortally wounded. The bomb-thrower was caught–

Alexander got out of his protective carriage. He was begged to get back in, but he wanted to talk to the would-be assassin. He walked to the restrained revolutionary.

“‘How’s the tsar?’ asked an officer, not recognizing him.

“‘Thank God, I’m fine,’ answered Alexander. He gestured at the dead and wounded. ‘But look…’

“‘Don’t thank God yet!’ Cried out the terrorist.

“Alexander asked him his class, and was relieved to learn that he was not a nobleman. ‘A fine one, you are!’ he reprimanded him, then turned back towards the carriage.

Another bomber lurked in the crowd. A bomb landed at Alexander’s feet as he inspected damage and decided what to do next.

Twenty people– including the Tsar and the second assassin, lay on the ground in pieces. The explosion was heard and felt throughout St. Petersburg, even by the royal family.

Assassination of Alexander II

Alexander was alive but hemorrhaging blood from his destroyed legs. He called out to be taken home to die. He lost consciousness and was rushed to the Winter Palace, leaving a trail of blood.

The horrific sight of the mangled, quickly-dying monarch was witnessed by both his heir, Alexander III, and Russia’s final tsar, the 13 year old Nicholas II. At 3:30, Alexander II, Emperor of all the Russias, the great liberator, was dead.

His son, Grand Duke Vladimir, spoke the traditional funerary phrase to the waiting crowd: “The emperor has bidden you to live long.”

Reform died with him. The monarchy would soon follow. The Romanov dynasty reigned for over three centuries but only two tsars would follow Alexander II and both would be terrified into reactionary, oppressive regimes, ending with the Bolshevik Revolution killing Alexander’s grandson, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Empress Alexandra, and their five children in 1918.

Alexander II, however, is remembered for the emancipation of serfs, considered by many to be one of the single greatest laws ever drafted.

So, what was the Liberator Tsar drinking, because man, I think we could all use a drink?

Cristal Champagne.

Long before P. Diddy and Jay-Z were rapping poetic about Cristal, Tsar Alexander II’s intense paranoia and love of autocratic exclusivity was helping to create it.

All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. To earn the fancy name, it can legally only come from one place: Champagne, France. The French feel very, very strongly about this– Hell, they stuck a clause about it in the Treaty of Versaille, you know, the thing that ended World War I. Priorities.

What Makes It Sparkle?

There are several methods for creating it, so here’s just a quick overview of the traditional method. Sparkling wine starts like any other wine: grow some grapes (likely Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes), smash ‘em up, and allowed it to ferment so that grape juice becomes wine.

To get those famous bubbles, the wine undergoes a second fermentation while bottled, along with a bit more yeast and sugar. Anytime yeast feasts on sugar, it creates alcohol and bubbly, bubbly carbon dioxide, but unless this process happens inside a bottle, it will just escape into the air, so the bottle part is key.

Eventually, the yeast will die and leave what vintners creatively call “lees,” which is far more appetizing than “dead yeast.” Then, the sparkling wine needs to age from a few months to several years.

But something must be done about the dead yeas– the lees! They disgorge! The least sexy word for a sexy-ass drink. This process involves rotating the bottles to allow the lees to collect in the neck, freezing it, and then opening it to allow the frozen lees out. At this point, they’ll add some sugar back to make it whatever type of sparkling it’s destined to be– Brut, Extra Dry, Demi-Sec, etc.

The  Devil’s Accidental Wine

Sparkling wine wasn’t so much invented as it just happened. In fact, for a while it was considered a flaw in the wine, and because bottles weren’t yet designed to deal with the pressure, often times they’d pop or break, setting off a chain reaction in cellars, earning it the name “The Devil’s Wine,” which honestly, some vineyard needs to reuse.

Bon to know: Get to Cristal Already.

Fast forward to 1883, and a young Frenchman name Louis Roederer inherits his uncle’s vineyard. Roederer had big plans: he wanted to make the best and get it into the best hands.

It just so happened that Tsar Alexander II was on the prowl for an even better Champagne than the stuff his extremely wealthy, discerning courtiers drank. He was the freaking tsar after all: his drink should be the tsar of champagnes.

Roederer got right on it. He created a wine made with extreme care, of only the best grapes and vintages making the world’s first Cuvée de Prestige– Cristal. But the Tsar had a few more suggestions, which make sense given the sheer number of people trying to kill him.

  1. A clear bottle. Not only would this afford him to the chance to see the pretty wine, but it would also make it simpler to see if it had been… poisoned!
  2. A flat bottom. Most bottles have an indentation called a punt, but he was a afraid someone could hide a bomb or something in there, so he wanted it gone! Okay, maybe that one makes a little less sense…

These design adjustments also meant the tsar could be totally sure they were his bottles. You gotta love the irony of a man who will design a murder-proof champagne bottle but refuses to get back in his murder-proof carriage after a bomb goes off.

Today, Cristal is still sold in that iconic bottle with its gold label, worthy of any Russian autocrat. The cellophane wrapper protects the wine from UV damage.

After the Russian Revolution and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1918, Cristal’s main customers were no longer buying, so we didn’t really see a prestige cuvée on the normal persons’ market again until Moët & Chandon released Dom Pérignon in the 1930s. By the 1940s, Roederer was again offering Cristal and we common people finally got a taste.

So, if you want to feel like the last great autocrat of all the Russias, splash out on a bottle of Cristal. za vashe zdarovje!

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