Tsar Alexander II of Russia stood at the crossroads of history—after all, his reign paved the way to the fall of the Romanov empire. And when you look at his scandalous life, it’s no wonder why it ended in tragedy. From secret, explosive letters to his utterly violent and shocking end, Alexander makes the mad, power-hungry Tsars that came before and after him look downright innocent.
Tsar Alexander II Facts
1. He Was A Royal Mistake
Alexander was never supposed to be the Tsar of all Russia. Born in 1818, he was merely the nephew of the current Tsar, Alexander I. But a twist of fate thrust him into power. When our Alexander was still a young boy, the throne went to his father, who became Tsar Nicholas I, and suddenly Alexander was heir apparent. This…was not a good thing.
2. His Father Was A Harsh Master
Life as a Russian Prince shouldn’t have been so bad, but Alexander’s childhood was a nightmare. His father Tsar Nicholas had always been a strict stick-in-the-mud, but once he took the throne, it got much worse. For years, the Emperor kept an iron grip on his son as well as his country. It’s a small wonder, then, that Alexander rebelled in a big way.
3. He Was Unpredictable
As Alexander grew up, he became the total opposite of his father: A liberal and a libertine. Infamous for his boundless energy and impulsive nature, he once befriended and then pardoned the radical, imprisoned Russian poet Alexander Herzen on a whim. By the time he turned 21, Alexander’s parents were desperate to get him to settle down—and they had just the idea.
4. He Went On One Long Bachelor Party
In 1839, Alexander embarked on a journey that would change his life. At the time, young men often went on a “Grand Tour” of Europe, and his parents arranged for him to do the same. Except, it came with a twist. The Tsar and Tsarina expected their heir to meet his future wife on the trip and even had a whole list of ladies and stops picked out for him.
In classic Alexander style, he completely upended their expectations.
5. He Met A Powerful Woman
During one stop, Alexander met the young Queen Victoria, who was unmarried at the time and just a year younger than him. However, Victoria was explicitly not part of his bride list. The pair of them were too powerful together, and any union between them would make other countries mighty nervous. So, of course, Alexander had to go and push his limits.
6. He Seduced Queen Victoria
Although nearly lost to history, Alexander’s visit to Queen Victoria contained an enormous secret. Victoria’s future marriage to Prince Albert may now be famous, but she and Alexander likely entertained a dalliance on this trip all the same. Though the romance was brief and unconsummated, Alexander no doubt loved flexing his forbidden love muscles. And he didn’t stop creating scandal.
7. His Parents Picked A Bride
The family-favorite bride on Alexander’s Bachelor Tour was Princess Alexandrine of Baden, the rather homely-looking but eminently respectable daughter of a German Duke and Swedish Princess. In fact, everyone thought she was such a shoo-in that Princes Alexandrine herself felt she was already betrothed to Alexander, and acted accordingly. Oh man, did he disappoint her.
8. He Made An Unexpected And Fateful Stop
On the way over to Baden, Alexander’s entourage grew tired of the constant city-hopping and princess shopping and begged him to stop in the German city of Darmstadt. At first, Alexander resisted—he wasn’t tired at all. Besides, he knew that Louis II, the reigning duke and thus the man he’d have to stay with, had a raging case of the doldrums. In other words: No fun, no Alexander.
Eventually, his men convinced him to calm the heck down and grow the heck up, and he stopped in Darmstadt after all. It was a date with destiny.
9. He Fell In Lust
Though the pleasure-seeking Alexander feared a “dull evening” with the much-older Louis, his fretting stopped the moment that the duke’s young and pretty daughter Princess Marie entered the room. Slim, tall, and much prettier than his supposed betrothed Princess Alexandrine, the girl gave the Tsesarevich immediate heart palpitations. Except he should have thought twice.
10. He Was A Cradle Robber
Even by Alexander’s own admission, he was into Marie “at first sight”…which is actually a little gross. See, Marie was only 14 years old at the time, so young that she still wore her hair loose the way children did. She was also equally inexperienced in society. When Alexander called her over, she was in the middle of eating cherries and had to spit the pits into her hand before greeting him. Bizarrely, this worked.
11. He Began A Serious Courtship
Creepy age and maturity difference aside, Alexander was clearly all-in and stayed to dine even though he did indeed find Marie’s father dull. Like everything he did, Alexander worked fast: When he left Marie, his flirtation had progressed enough for her to gift him a locket with her hair inside. Only, it was all about to come crashing down.
12. He Chose The Wrong Girl
After his meeting with Marie, Alexander wrote to his father and mother, passionately declaring his love. His parents’ response shocked him. Sure, he was supposed to sample an array of potential brides, but he was also supposed to marry poor Princess Alexandrine in the end, dangit. His mother protested vehemently, citing how inferior Marie’s family was to their own. But the Tsarina had darker reasons for her objections.
13. His Love Had A Scandalous Secret
To the Tsar and Tsarina’s horror, the gossip at the time insisted that Princess Marie was actually an illegitimate child and that her father was really her mother’s illicit lover. This was a black mark enough for the time, but Alexander’s parents also feared that Marie’s mother, who had died young, had passed on her consumption. Faced with this opposition, there was only one thing Alexander could think to do.
14. He Threatened His Father And Mother
Already impulsive and uber-romantic—two traits that would not serve him well in the future—Alexander scrawled off a series of hastily written letters to his parents. In them, he gave a stunning ultimatum. Using the only power he had, he threatened that he would simply drop out of the line of succession if they didn’t let him marry Marie. Well, be careful what you wish for.
15. He Had A Long Engagement
After their son pushed them into a corner, the Tsar and Tsarina finally relented and let Alexander propose to the girl, who said yes. In a whirlwind, Marie went to live in Russia, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, and took on the name “Maria Alexandrovna.” After that initial rush, the family then waited a full year for her to become a safe child-bearing age. And in that time, the scales already started to fall from Alexander’s eyes.
16. His Fiancée Wasn’t What He Thought
Alexander may have been in love at first sight with Marie, but the reality was much different. Although he was still devoted to her, it became clear that—unlike him—his fiancée was quiet and conservative. After all, she was raised in the drab, ascetic atmosphere of Darmstadt with an absolute bore of a father. And while their varying levels of energy sometimes helped balance them out, there were deeper issues with this.
17. He Scared His Bride
Within these first few months, Alexander must have realized how ill-suited Mare was to the bustling court life of Russia. Instead of energizing Marie, the atmosphere only exhausted and overwhelmed the reserved girl. As her maid described it, she was “more frightened than bedazzled” in the opulent surroundings, and spent her evenings sobbing into embroidered pillows.
It was the first hint of trouble in the union, but the two lovers still took it full speed ahead.
18. He Made His Wedding All About Him
When Alexander finally did decide it was time to marry Marie, he did it his way. He wed his teenage bride in a massive, showy ceremony that was more about his tastes than hers. To top it off, he chose the eve of his 23rd birthday as the wedding date, because why not make your big day all about you? Even so, one thing was clear: The wedding night was an embarrassing success.
19. He Was Very Virile
With Alexander’s boundless energy and Marie’s young pliability, it’s no surprise the pair began popping out children. Just a year after her wedding, when she was still a teenager, Marie gave Alexander his first child, a daughter they named Alexandra and nicknamed “Lina” or “Sashenka.” And with the birth of his daughter, a great change overtook Alexander.
20. He Played Huge Favorites
Simply put, Alexander was a girl dad like no other. He was deeply involved in raising Alexandra, and as the girl grew into a toddler he would often have her keep him company in his study while he worked. Indeed, although Maria soon birthed a succession of three strong male heirs, Alexandra remained his favorite. Which only made the girl’s fate all the more gut-wrenching.
21. He Lost His Little Girl
In 1849, when Alexandra was six years old, unimaginable tragedy struck the Imperial family. That summer, the little princess perished from infant meningitis, sending both of her parents into a tailspin. Their grief was so overwhelming that years later, Marie would still break out into sobs at the mere mention of the girl’s name. Yet Alexander’s own reaction was impossibly heartbreaking.
22. He Never Got Over His Grief
To commemorate his little girl, Alexander kept a keepsake from her for the rest of his life. He took a flower from her funeral mass, dried it, and pressed it between the pages of his private diary to keep close to him. He then colored the page black so it would eternally represent his mourning. Tragically, as we’ll see, this was only the first of Alexander’s horrific losses.
23. He Got A New Favorite Child
Alexander was never shy about playing favorites with his children, and soon he went over the top. In 1853, Marie finally gave birth to another girl, Maria Alexandrovna, and the newborn immediately eclipsed the six siblings—all boys—who came before and after her. As Alexander crowed, “Her birth was a joy and a delight, not to be described, and her whole life has been a continuation.”
Sweet? Sure. But it also set up a messy family dynamic that would come back to haunt Alexander, big time. Until then, he had his own problematic father to deal with.
24. His Father Fell Ill
In 1855, Alexander’s father Tsar Nicholas I was 58 years old and getting somewhat long in the tooth, especially for the health standards in Russia at the time. So when the curmudgeon caught a chill in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg that ended up developing into pneumonia, everyone feared the worst. Well, they should have feared a whole lot more.
25. He Watched His Father Brutally Die
The patriarch had never been one for sentimentality, but he really proved this over the next few days. When doctors informed Alexander’s father that his pneumonia could be fatal, the old man refused any and all treatment. He was so adamant, some suggested he wanted to die. Whatever the motive, the bitter end was the same: Nicholas passed on March 2nd, 1855—and Alexander’s world got upended again.
26. He Received A Bad Omen
The 37-year-old Alexander was now the Tsar of All Russia. Yet a dark omen overshadowed his beginnings. At his and Marie’s coronation ceremony in Moscow, the Empress’s four ladies-in-waiting accidentally dropped her crown, where it fell into the folds of her cloak. Superstition held that this meant a bad future for Alexander and his wife, and the room grew uneasy.
Unfortunately, they didn’t have to wait long for the portent to come true.
27. He Had Big Plans For His Son
At the time of his coronation, the Tsar’s Great White Hope was his eldest son and heir, the new Tsesarevich Nicholas—and, seemingly for once in history, the heir was equal to his burden. Well-educated, intelligent, and eloquent, Nicholas’s uncle called him the “crown of perfection,” and everyone believed the future of Russia was in good hands. Fate, however, had much crueler plans.
28. His Bad Luck Struck Again
In 1863, Alexander began to put his heir on the marriage market, and things came together almost too easily. The young Nicholas fell hopelessly in love with Dagmar of Denmark, and the pair quickly became engaged. Then the other shoe dropped. In 1865, Nicholas fell seriously ill. Alexander, his wife Marie, and his second son Sasha all rushed to the young man’s side, with Dagmar following.
When they realized what was the matter, the Tsar’s heart must have sunk.
29. His Son Was In Mortal Danger
The universe had a bitter sense of humor when it came to Tsar Alexander II, because his heir Nicholas was suffering from a fatal case of cerebrospinal meningitis, a variant of the illness that killed his little Alexandra all those years before. The Tsar had to watch as yet another of his bright, promising children faded in front of his eyes. And still, the day got more macabre.
30. He Went Through A Horrific Ordeal
On April 24, the Tsar’s heir died, leaving his son Sasha as the Tsesarevich. Though the tragedy of losing their eldest boy knocked Alexander and his wife off their feet, they had to save all of their remaining strength for Dagmar, who was totally beside herself. According to reports, the grieving Tsar and Tsarina had to tear the girl from their son’s body. Then it got very weird, very fast.
31. He Made A Harrowing Proposition
Tsar Alexander and Marie were apparently happy to let Dagmar lean on them…because they had bigger plans for the girl. See, while sitting by the deathbed, the Romanov couple decided it was a “great” idea for Dagmar to get over Nicholas ASAP and marry their next son, Sasha, instead. Most bizarrely of all, the plan worked: Alexander’s replacement heir married Dagmar next year.
Unfortunately, this was one of the last times Alexander and his wife were truly unified.
32. His Marriage Grew Cold
Since the birth of his last child, Alexander’s marriage went through an unsettling transformation. Empress Marie, never of strong constitution and never in love with the exuberances of the Russian court, grew more sickly and more reserved as the years went on. Eventually, the Tsar and Tsarina were miles apart in taste and temperament. It began to show.
33. He Held Unbelievably Lavish Balls
To cope with the passing of his children and the chill of his marriage, Alexander dove further into balls and parties. He would regularly transport hundreds of palm trees into the Winter Palace for eye-popping evenings he called Les Bals des Palmieres. After all, what better way to forget your problems than basking in a tropic oasis? And of course, his retiring wife was almost never in attendance.
It was all bound to reach a breaking point, but no one could have predicted just how bad it would get.
34. He Had A Major Wandering Eye
Throughout his married life, Alexander had always taken casual mistresses whenever it suited him. Yet as Empress Marie grew more delicate, these flings turned into serious relationships, with the ruler once engaging in a decade-long dalliance with one of Marie’s own ladies-in-waiting, Alexandra Albedinskaya. Yikes…but you ain’t seen nothing yet.
35. He Didn’t Touch His Wife
Although Empress Marie seemed dutifully silent on the matter of her husband’s (many) infidelities, there was a reason for this. The royal couple was concealing a darker truth in their own bedroom. Marie had grown so ill, her doctors eventually advised her to stop sleeping with the Tsar entirely, lest she meet an early grave. This did not end well.
36. He Had A Teenage Crush
By the 1860s, with Empress Marie completely knocked out of the boudoir, Alexander took his philandering to a disturbing pitch. How disturbing? Well, in 1864, the middle-aged Tsar began meeting with the 16-year-old Catherine Dolgorukova, a girl he had known since she was 11. At first, he just visited her at school to walk and talk. But that was only at first.
37. He Was Lovesick
As the months went on, Alexander became more infatuated with Catherine. The nubile girl had liberal opinions that matched his own as well as a pert way of expressing them, and it was a combination he couldn’t resist. Alexander’s crush did not go unnoticed: Catherine’s mother advised her to seal the deal with the Tsar as soon as possible. Instead, something much more dangerous happened.
38. He Wanted What He Couldn’t Have
For all her 16 years, Catherine was no fool. She sensed that giving into Alexander’s constant need for stimulation would only make her the latest mistress in a long line of them—which was not what she had planned for herself. Instead, Catherine calmed herself down, became Alexander’s closest confidant, and waited for her moment. Unfortunately, that moment came with a high price.
39. He Had A Near-Death Experience
After taking the throne, Alexander had abolished Russia’s serfdom system—and while seemingly a no-brainer, it was a move that made him enemies in both conservative and revolutionary circles. This had dire results. On April 4th, 1866, the Tsar was out walking when the radical agent Dmitry Karakozov tried to take a shot at him.
Although it failed, the attempt thoroughly shook Alexander…and he knew just who he wanted to comfort him.
40. He Put His Mistress Through A Trial
In the wake of the attempt on his life, Alexander didn’t run to his wife’s cold arms. Instead, he went right to little Catherine Dolgorukova. Catherine was dealing with the passing of her own mother at the time too, and the pair cried on each other’s shoulders for weeks, growing closer than ever. Until, that July, Catherine made a fateful decision.
41. He Finally Sealed The Deal
In the summer of 1866, Catherine made her move. One July evening, she finally allowed the Tsar to seduce her into his bed. The consequences were incalculable. After years of longing for and learning to understand Catherine, Alexander was now more in love with her than he had ever been with anyone, Empress Marie included. So, in the throes of passion, he made one treacherous promise.
42. He Had A “Secret Wife”
Alexander and Catherine kept very detailed notes about their relationship, which is how historians know exactly what they did the night they consummated their love. According to Catherine’s records, Alexander looked her in the eye after the deed and told her, “Now you are my secret wife. I swear that if I am ever free, I will marry you.” Foreshadowing, anyone?
43. He Had A Naughty Code Word
With their illicit affair finally in full swing, Alexander and Catherine exercised an abundance of caution to hide their meetings. However, they couldn’t hide how crazy they were for each other. While they refused to sign their own letters, they still scrawled feverish missives multiple times a day. They also had a code word, “bingerle,” for their intimate activies…and they wrote that word a lot. And then it went up a notch.
44. He Was Public Enemy Number One
The two lovers came together after the violent attack on Alexander, and just a year later history repeated itself. While Alexander was driving through the 1867 World Fair in a carriage, another radical shot at him, missing only because of a misfire. After this second scrape with death, Alexander’s devotion to Catherine turned terrifying.
45. He Had Risqué Hobbies
Despite all their precautions, palace insiders were very aware of Alexander’s obsession with his “Katya.” Besides renting Catherine her own mansion in St. Petersburg, Alexander also had his guards accompany her to private rooms four times a week—where he liked, among other things, to sketch her in the buff. When she wasn’t around, he talked or thought of her incessantly.
He had it bad. And soon, there were much more permanent signs of his devotion.
46. He Had A Double Life
With all the “bingerle” Alexander and Catherine got up to, it was no surprise when Catherine found herself pregnant in 1872. She gave birth to a son they named George, who was quickly followed by a daughter, Olga, the next year. Yep, Alexander’s mid-life crisis was to get an entire secret second family. Which might be why he started being such a terror to his first brood.
47. He Made An Enemy Of Queen Victoria
Right around the time that his extramarital daughter Olga was born, Alexander’s bad parenting caused an international incident. His absolute favorite child, Grand Duchess Maria, had just fallen in love with Prince Alfred, the son of his old flame Queen Victoria—and Alexander was having none of it. When the lovers stated their intention to marry, the jealous Alexander nearly refused their request.
Then when the wedding did happen the next year, the Tsar really let it all hang out. Not in a good way.
48. He Acted Like A Buffoon
Alexander hadn’t exactly spent his reign building up relations with England, and both countries were now thoroughly suspicious of each other’s customs. So it was particularly stupid when, at Maria’s wedding in St. Petersburg, Alexander went major diva-dad and insisted that his baby girl take precedence over England’s Princess of Wales, who was in attendance. Queen Victoria said a big “heck no” to that.
Alexander’s children always were his weak spot—and his mistress Catherine knew just how to turn this to her advantage.
49. He Kept His Mistress Right Under His Wife’s Nose
In 1876, Catherine was pregnant again, and she made a daring request. Sick of living in the shadows, she insisted that she have the newest child in the Winter Palace, where the rest of Alexander’s “real” family lived. She got what she wanted: Although the babe, a boy named Boris, died in infancy, he was nonetheless born in the Emperor’s rooms.
Catherine was moving ever closer to the center of Alexander’s life, and everyone was about to get one rude awakening.
50. He Forcefully Blended His Families
After giving Alexander another daughter in 1878 and helping him through a further TWO assassination attempts, Catherine completed her domination of the Tsar’s heart. In fact, in early 1880, Alexander was so far gone that he decided his Katya was going to come live in the Winter Palace permanently. Accordingly, he moved both her and all of their illegitimate children in, right on top of his first family. Somehow, this gets tackier.
51. He Treated His Wife Abominably
Catherine likely felt a sense of triumph at her royal move, but this all came with a sinister price. See, when Alexander decided to install Catherine in his wife’s house, Empress Marie was dying. You read that right; Marie’s constant ill health was culminating in a vicious bout of tuberculosis, and Alexander thought that this was a great time to shove his mistress in her face. Within days, the backlash hit.
52. His Own Court Turned On Him
Empress Marie might have been a bit of a downer, but she was still a fixture at court and gossip circles worked overtime to tear down Catherine in support of their Empress. Courtiers even falsely whispered that the dying Marie could hear Catherine’s illegitimate children running in the rooms above her. But when real trouble did happen between the women, it was a doozy.
53. Assailants Blew Up His Dining Room
In February that same year, the worst assassination attempt yet hit Alexander—and it hit terrifyingly close to home. A timed bomb blew up underneath his dining room at the Winter Palace, killing 11 people and injuring scores more. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, dinner had been delayed that evening, so Alexander was unscathed. He was also about to do something supremely stupid.
54. He Left His Wife To Die
As the smoke cleared from the ruined palace room, the Tsar’s response was bone-chilling. Immediately fearing for Catherine’s life, he sprinted upstairs screaming, “Katya, my dearest Katya!” for all to hear. In the meantime, he completely ignored the fact his wife Empress Marie, who was also right there, might have been hurt in the explosion. Don’t worry, though, karma was coming for him.
55. His Own Daughter Scorned Him
In May, a handful of weeks after the explosion, Alexander’s favorite daughter Grand Duchess Maria came back home from England to visit her dying mother. She was utterly appalled at Catherine’s free rein and her father’s neglect of the Empress, and immediately confronted him about it. Alexander, to his meager credit, was ashamed enough to start asking after his wife more regularly. Unfortunately, it was far too late.
56. He Had A Last-Minute Reconciliation
Knowing the end was near, Alexander’s wife performed an utterly selfless act. Not wanting to sow discord in the family when she was gone, Marie requested to meet Alexander’s illegitimate children for the first time. Alexander complied and, with both the Tsar and Tsarina sobbing their eyes out, he brought his eldest George and Olga to her deathbed one evening.
But by June 3, 1880, Empress Marie was dead and Alexander was repaying her kindness with black-hearted betrayal.
57. He Threw His Wife’s Memory Away
On the very day of Marie’s death, Alexander wrote some of his most damning lines ever. Although hesitant, he was nonetheless relieved at the news of her passing, saying, “My double life ends today.” After all, he was now free to be with Catherine, and his poor dying wife wasn’t going to be a huge buzzkill about it. As for Catherine? Her reaction was downright bloodthirsty.
58. His Mistress Crowed Over Tragedy
Immediately following Marie’s passing, Catherine let her true colors show—not that she’d been too shy in the past. She was baldly and boldly delighted that the Tsarina was no more; as Alexander put it, “she doesn’t hide her joy.” Indeed, the instant Marie’s body started growing cold, Catherine began to push the Tsar into a move he could never come back from.
59. He Caused An Enormous Scandal
Barely a month after Empress Marie passed, Alexander did a very stupid thing: He married Catherine Dolgorukova. Though a secret ceremony, it nonetheless legitimized their children. It also turned her into the “Most Serene Princess Yurievskaya.” Now, the Tsar had anticipated a few rumblings about the union, but this dumb-dumb soon discovered just how big of a scandal it was.
60. Everyone Went Against Him
Quite literally no one in Alexander’s support system was for the marriage. For one, the Tsar had asked the priest who’d witnessed his first marriage to do the same for his second, and the man indignantly refused. Meanwhile, his childhood friend begged him, quite reasonably, to wait a year before tying the knot with Catherine. So when the truth came out, it was an absolute disaster.
61. His Family Couldn’t Forgive Him
When his marriage came to light, Alexander had to deal with a mass resignation of his once-loyal servants, not to mention a flood of angry letters from his family. One of his sisters-in-law vowed never to recognize “that scheming adventuress,” and his favorite girl Grand Duchess Maria wrote: “I pray that myself and my junior brothers…would one day be able to forgive you.” But that was just the beginning of his nightmare.
62. He Had A Public Breakdown
As Alexander kept parading Catherine about as his wife, his family got more opportunities to turn their threats into action. At one ball, it came to an infamous head. That night, his daughter-in-law Dagmar refused to kiss the upstart Catherine, a huge snub for the time. Alexander was so embarrassed and upset, he later screamed at her, “You have no heart.”
Look, I’m not sure exactly what this man thought was going to happen when he married his mistress before his wife was cold in her grave. Still, you can bet he got himself into even deeper water.
63. He Had Ulterior Motives
Throughout all this, the family was terrified that Alexander would try to crown Catherine as Empress. Well, they weren’t wrong. Acting more like a lovesick teenager than a diplomatic genius, Alexander had already privately declared his intention to stage her coronation on August 1, 1881. But warranted fears or not, all this animosity did take an unfair toll on Catherine.
64. His New Wife Suffered
No one asks to be an irresistible babe, and Catherine didn’t completely warrant all the vitriol she was receiving from Alexander’s family. From Catherine’s point of view, she was always deferential to Alexander’s children. She even shut him down one dinner when he talked of making one of their children a Grand Duke, telling him, “for God’s sake drop it!”
Then again, was Catherine really “deferential,” or did she just have a better sense of timing than her husband? We’ll never know because we never got to find out. Horror struck first.
65. His Wife Had A Dreadful Premonition
In early March of 1881, Catherine woke up with an ice-cold prick of premonition. She was certain that today was the day Tsar Alexander was finally going to die, after all the assassination attempts that had come before. Accordingly, she begged him to skip his duties and stay home, safe within the palace walls. Alexander’s reply was oh-so-typical…and very naughty.
66. He Had One Last Hurrah
Instead of taking Catherine seriously, Alexander did what he always did: He got down and dirty with her to calm her fears. Apparently, they did their “bingerle” right there on the table in her rooms, and then he walked off to do his usual Sunday military roll call, leaving the only slightly less worried Catherine behind. In mere hours, she would tragically be proven right.
67. Two Assailants Cornered Him
While out performing his duties, Alexander’s reality spun, then shattered. First, one radical threw a bomb at him, but it missed. Then another tried his hand. This second explosive, unlike the now six other attempts, finally hit its mark. Alexander knew it too: When the bomb landed right at his feet, he intoned, “It is too early to thank God.”
Suddenly, the atmosphere tore apart with shrapnel and shouts. When the chaos calmed, the Emperor was saying his last words.
68. He Clung On For A Final Moment
As aides rushed to the Tsar’s side, they discovered, half with horror and half with hope, that he was still alive and shouting “Help!” By all rights, he shouldn’t have even been breathing; his legs were shattered and he was beyond all earthly help. Nonetheless, his loyal men carried their ruler back to the Winter Palace to perform last rites—and to allow him to make a final, heartbreaking goodbye.
69. He Died In His Lover’s Arms
As attendants dragged Alexander’s barely conscious form into his study, Catherine rushed out of her boudoir, half-dressed and near mad with grief. The image she created that day lived in infamy. Still done up in her pink and white nightgown, the horrified watchers remembered how the Tsar’s blood-soaked through her finery as she held his body until the bitter end. And it was a bitter one.
70. His Memory Was Tainted
The legacy of Alexander II is not a happy one, either for his country or for his kin. On a political level, his violent death spurred on suppressive legislation within the government, all while radical activists took their success as a sign to employ “propaganda by deed,” i.e. achieving ends through brute force. But within the palace walls, it grew more vicious.
71. His Family Didn’t Play Nice
No one in the Imperial family got over the Tsar’s death, and Russia would see nothing like it again until the horrendously cruel end of Alexander’s own grandson, Nicholas II. All the same, his own children dealt him the worst betrayal. They turned Catherine Dolgorukova into the scapegoat they always wanted her to be, pushing her out of court and forcing her to settle far away in France.
Catherine lived in near-disgrace, with the family continuing to besmirch her name, right up until she herself passed four decades later.