In the never-ending see-saw that was Romanov rule in Russia, a truly forward-thinking Tsar finally came to power in 1855. Alexander II accomplished Catherine the Great’s never-achieved emancipation of Russia’s serfs, among a host of other good-government reforms, leading his newly free and suddenly energized public to call him Alexander the Liberator.
Likely influenced by a grand tour of Europe when he was a young man (and during which he and a 20-year-old Queen Victoria may have had a bit of a romance), he took the throne amidst plenty of chaos left over from his father, Nicholas I’s, rule. Russia was still bogged down in the Crimean War, for instance, a situation Alexander resolved by simply withdrawing Russia from the conflict and negotiating a disadvantageous peace that allowed him to focus on the stuff he really liked.
Under his leadership, with freedom in fairly full flower in Russia, new business formation went through the roof, new rail lines were built to expand commerce and promote defense, and municipalities and regions gained more rights for self-government. Trials by jury were the new fashion, and Russia even found a way to rid itself of a money-losing North American colony on the western coast of Canada.
But Russia remained Russia, and radical groups still chafed under Romanov rule. Alexander survived a number of assassination attempts during his reign, but in 1881, a bombing finally left him mortally wounded – and the bombers’ stories would go on to intersect with Russian history in a profound way just a few decades later.
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