Tyrannical Facts About Tsar Alexander I, Russia’s Worst Monarch

October 19, 2023 | Dancy Mason

Tyrannical Facts About Tsar Alexander I, Russia’s Worst Monarch

From his unhinged behavior to his bedroom scandals, Tsar Alexander I of Russia took after his grandmother Catherine the Great a little TOO much.

1. He Was A Romanov To His Core

Tsar Alexander I wasn’t just Catherine the Great’s grandson, he was her spitting image—at least in terms of his overweening ambition, his perverse bedroom habits, and his deranged demands. Then again, Alexander reveled in other scandals and horrors that were all his own, leading him to an even darker, if less well-known, end.

Alexander I after KügelgenКюгельген (Кюгельхен), Герард фон, Wikimedia Commons

2. He Was Born Into Battle

Alexander was born into turmoil worthy of Game of Thrones. His grandma Catherine the Great hated his father, Paul, with a fiery passion. In fact, from the moment of Alexander’s birth in 1777 there were rumors that Catherine wanted to skip over her own son in favor of the baby Alexander. All this had unsettling consequences.

Catherine the Great FactsWikimedia Commons

3. His Father Was Insane

As it turned out, Catherine may have had good reason to hate her own son. Alexander’s father had one ruinous trait. He was at least half off his rocker, with horrible instincts for ruling. The “eccentric” elder heir was obsessed with the military and chivalry, to the point that he forced his men into ridiculous and unpractical uniforms just because he liked the way they looked.

So that’s what Alexander was dealing with when it came to his father. As for his grandmother? She might have been worse.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

4. He Despised His Famous Grandmother

While Alexander had a kooky father on one side, Catherine the Great—currently ruling all of Russia—was hardly a walk in the park either. Domineering, callous, and mercurial, Catherine loved controlling people, and from a young age Alexander learned to dislike, if fear her. He knew if he wasn’t careful, he’d be just another puppet on her strings.

But he had to learn that the hard way, because Catherine was about to make a big decision for him.

Russian Empire quizPixabay

5. He Began Dating At A Young Age

When Alexander was still barely a teenager, Catherine decided it was high time he got married. Her methods were mortifying. She had her eye on the princesses of Baden, and invited two sisters, Louise and Frederica, to spend time in St Petersburg for what was essentially a mini meat market for her grandson. Alexander didn’t react well.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

6. He Was Painfully Awkward

Alexander was only 15 at the time, Louise just 13, and Frederica even younger. So although Alexander liked the look of Louise—she had a fair beauty and the profile of a Greek sculpture—he messed it up royally at first. Alexander didn’t know how to act around her, and Louise initially took his shyness for dislike.

In hindsight, the pair of them might have listened more to these misgivings. But once they were sorted out, there was no looking back.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikimedia Commons

7. He Had A Fairy-Tale Wedding

Alexander got over his inexperience enough to actually court Louise, and they were quickly betrothed and then married in September of 1793. Catherine the Great, pleased with her choice of bride, wrote to a friend that “It was a marriage between Psyche and Cupid,” idealizing the match. Catherine the Great wasn’t used to being proven wrong, but she was going to learn the feeling.

Catherine The Great factsWikimedia Commons

8. His Court Was Filthy

Upon her marriage, Alexander’s new wife took on the name “Elizabeth Alexeievna”—but no amount of conformity could prepare her for the Russian court. After the wedding, dark secrets came out. Alexander didn’t just live in a world of dangerous politics, but also of risqué intrigue.

In St Petersburg, husbands and wives committed adultery constantly, almost as a form of light entertainment, and Catherine the Great herself was often in the middle of it. The naive Elizabeth was appalled at what she saw, but she’d really seen nothing yet.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

9. His Bride Got A Disgusting Proposal

Shortly into Alexander and Elizabeth’s marriage, Catherine the Great’s own lover, Platon Zubov, decided to proposition the young bride. Whether it was Catherine’s idea of welcoming the girl in earnest, or a cruel idea of a joke, Elizabeth vehemently declined and retreated further into herself.

During this difficult time, her burgeoning relationship with Alexander was all she had to cling to. This was a mistake.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

10. He Came To A Bitter Conclusion

Within the first few months of his marriage, Alexander came to a stomach-sinking conclusion. Although he liked his wife well enough, and she certainly was pretty—many considered her one of the most beautiful women in Europe—he felt nothing but platonic love for her. Even worse, he couldn’t fake it, and Elizabeth soon had no illusions about the state of her marriage.

As usual, though, Catherine the Great had to go and make it worse.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

11. He Had To Lie To The Public

To celebrate this new union, Catherine constructed the Alexander Palace for her grandson and his bride. Yet instead of becoming a safe haven, it became a public prison for both of them. While they resided there, Alexander and Elizabeth were expected to make merry with everyone and pretend to be in love with each other, two duties they despised having to perform for the Empress.

But there were bigger problems.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

12. His Marriage Had One Big Problem

Three years into the marriage, Alexander still didn’t have an heir—or any child at all—by Elizabeth. Although the couple were still both painfully young, Catherine the Great hardly had any patience for this. She expressed her grave disappointment in her daughter-in-law, making life at court that much harder for the pair.

Little did they know, their lives were about to turn upside down.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

13. He Got A Nasty Surprise

Catherine the Great had spent years grooming Alexander to leapfrog his father to throne, and maybe that’s why she pushed him to secure an heir. But fate had much more chaotic plans. In 1796, the previously robust Empress suddenly (and infamously) had a stroke and passed, all without any formal plans in place to make Alexander her successor.

Instead, Alexander’s worst nightmare occurred.


14. He Lived Under A Tyrant

With nothing to stop him, Alexander’s unbalanced father became Emperor Paul I of Russia. His reign was every bit as bad as Alexander feared. Paul was even more mercurial than Catherine the Great, and irrational to boot. Alexander despised his father’s tenure and wrote that Russia had become a “plaything for the insane”.

His own life, however, wasn’t much different.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

15. There Was Something Wrong With His Baby

Alexander never had any time for his wife, so members of the court likely considered it a miracle when Elizabeth finally fell pregnant, then had a baby—a girl named Maria—in 1799. But then the Emperor noticed something disturbing. Paul, never a tactful one, exclaimed his amazement that the girl had dark hair and eyes when her parents were both fair.

This was the tip of the iceberg on very sordid story.

Thomas Lawrence - Portrait of Alexander IThomas Lawrence, Wikimedia Commons

16. His Best Friend Betrayed Him

With Alexander neglecting her, it’s no surprise Elizabeth strayed from their marriage bed. And who she had an affair with was even more scandalous: She started a relationship with the dark-featured Polish prince Adam Czartoryski—Alexander’s best friend. Some historians still believe baby Maria was Prince Adam’s daughter, not Alexander’s.

That said, the karma Elizabeth experienced far outweighed her sins.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

17. He Went Through A Tragedy

In 1800, another shockwave went through the Russian royal palace. Alexander’s “daughter” Maria passed from an unknown illness at just a year old. For the first time in years, Alexander and Elizabeth were united in their grief, with Elizabeth writing, "Not an hour of the day passes without my thinking of her, and certainly not a day without my giving her bitter tears”.

To add insult to this gaping injury, Elizabeth’s lover Prince Adam went off on a diplomatic mission around this time too—perhaps by Alexander’s design. Meanwhile, Alexander was finding his own ways to deal with the grief.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

18. He Sinned First

Before we judge Elizabeth too harshly—if we should judge her at all—you should probably know that Alexander was no saint, either. In 1796, Alexander actually had his own illegitimate child with his mistress Sophia, three full years before Elizabeth’s pregnancy ever showed up. Unfortunately, that was the least of it.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

19. He Took A Gorgeous Mistress

In 1799, the same year as the birth of his ill-fated daughter, Alexander struck up an affair with the married courtier Maria Naryshkina. It was an absolute disaster. Called the “Aspasia of the North” in reference to the famed courtesan of Ancient Greece, one admirer wrote that Maria possessed a beauty "so perfect that it seemed impossible". Her personality? Not so beautiful…

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

20. His Lover Was Cruel

Although the Russian royal family doted on Maria (beauty privilege is real, y’all), she and Elizabeth had a horrendous relationship. Why? Because Maria couldn’t stop trying to edge out Elizabeth, and attempted on at least one occasion to make Alexander divorce her. To Alexander’s credit, he declined, but he kept Maria beside him anyway.

Of course, compared to Alexander’s next move, these infidelities are child’s play.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

21. His Father Met A Violent End

By 1801, the rule of Alexander’s father Paul had become an absolute shamble. His bizarre demands and failing mental health had turned nearly everyone against him—and that September, a group of angry men rushed into the royal chambers and assassinated the Emperor. For Alexander, it was a baptism of blood: He was now Tsar. Yet his role on that dark night was chilling.

Paul I of Russia factsWikimedia Commons

22. He Had Blood On His Hands

When Paul met his fate, the 23-year-old Alexander was in the same palace, just rooms away. Indeed, historians widely believe that Alexander—who’d had enough of his father like everyone else—condoned the men bursting into Paul’s rooms. To be fair, they also believe he expected the men to force an abdication in his favor, not kill the old Tsar.

Even so, the fallout shows just how complicit Alexander was.

Portrait of Emperor Paul I Petrovich - Google Cultural InstituteGoogle Art Project, Wikimedia Commons

23. He Got Harsh Advice

Right after doing the evil deed, one of the assassins, Nikolay Zubov, not only announced Alexander’s ascension to the Russian throne, but also faced him in his private rooms and gave him a piece of advice. Perhaps seeing Alexander’s stricken face, Zubov grunted, “Time to grow up! Go and rule!” Well, Alexander’s first act was base subterfuge.

Emperor Paul I of Russia granting liberty to General Kościuszko (by Henry Singleton)Henry Singleton, Henry Singleton, Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

24. He Spearheaded An Enormous Cover-Up

If Alexander was so against his father’s death, he could have very easily punished the men responsible and trumpeted the grisly turn of events all over St Petersburg. He did neither of those things. Instead, he let them go, and even had his court physician rule Paul’s passing as “apoplexy” just to tie up the loose ends.

It was an undeniable fork in Alexander’s life, and he would eventually pay for it dearly.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

25. He Kept An Evil Secret

From then on, there was a distinct “before” and “after” to Alexander. With blood on his hands, he became a kind of Lady Macbeth in his deepest soul, torn apart by his sins but unable to truly confront them. This had far-reaching consequences. For one, his marriage to Elizabeth, which had seemed to be strengthening in their shared mourning for baby Maria, crumbled once more.

Although she was with him that night and encouraged him, Elizabeth’s sweet, placid disposition in the months and years that followed did nothing to remedy Alexander’s yowling, savage guilt. Instead, Alexander found bloodier distractions.

Alexander I by S.Shchukin (1809, Tver)Stepan Shchukin, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Showed His Might

No sooner had Alexander taken the throne than he got a taste of how horrible power could be. In 1803, the Napoleonic Wars were raging, and the new Tsar had to put away his daddy issues to deal with the territory-obliterating Napoleon Bonaparte. The Tsar showed just how well he could repress himself.

Although an absolute ruler himself, Alexander decided it was his holy mission to put down Napoleon, calling him “the most famous tyrant the world has produced”. But he was about to meet his match.

portrait of Napoleon in the historical castlePack-Shot, Shutterstock

27. He Had A Cunning Foe

While Napoleon once heckled Alexander as “a shifty Byzantine,” the compact Frenchman was quite the fox himself. He set about trying to get Alexander on his side through any means necessary, bribing him with power, lands, and even asking for the hand of Alexander’s younger sister. Although Alexander was tempted, he stayed his course…until 1812, when it came to an infamous head.

Tragic rulersWikipedia

28. He Suffered A Humiliation

In the summer of 1812, Alexander witnessed an event that would haunt him forever. Napoleon, annoyed and looking to make a statement, invaded Russia and entered the city of Moscow. Once he got there, Napoleon and his men desecrated the Kremlin, the “holy center” of Russian religious life.

From then on, Alexander’s distaste for Napoleon turned into pure hatred. So he got a nuclear revenge.

Napoleon Bonaparte FactsWikipedia

29. He Played Napoleon

When Napoleon entered Moscow, he received a nasty surprise. Not only had most of the residents evacuated it, but Alexander also made sure they’d burned strategic points throughout the city. It became known as the Fire of Moscow, and it stymied many of Napoleon’s plans for a glorious victory over the city.

This had now turned into a legendary rivalry, and Alexander and his country were about to deliver the final blow.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

30. His Country Crushed Him

After taking Moscow, Napoleon moved on to other parts of Russia. This was a fatal error. Before long, Russian Winter set in, and Alexander could “attack” Napoleon’s men without having to lift a finger. The French suffered from lack of food, not to mention isolated Russian peasants and Cossacks pecking at them everywhere they went.

By December, Napoleon gave up and withdrew. It was the beginning of the end.

Military Blunders factsWikipedia

31. He Emerged A Changed Man

After this Russian humiliation, Napoleon fell within a couple short years, and Alexander became part of a massive coalition that exiled him to the isle of Elba. It was the dawn of a terrifying new era: Alexander emerged from the rubble as one of the greatest powers in Europe. Trouble was, his private life was now rubble, too.

Marie Louise, Napoleon's Empress factsNapoléon (2002), A+E Networks

32. He Faked It With His Wife

While Alexander was off dealing with Napoleon, his marriage was buried even further underground. Although he still “honored” his wife Elizabeth by having formal meals with her, the royal couple were two very cold fish, particularly as Alexander still insisted on flaunting his mistress Maria around. But hey, two could play at that game.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

33. She Strayed Again

Poor Empress Elizabeth was about as lonely as you could get, until she made a scandalous decision. She took her own lover yet again, this time selecting a handsome captain, Alexis Okhotnikov. Alexander probably barely noticed his wife’s straying…until Elizabeth’s horrible luck struck with its worst bout yet.

Alexander I by François GérardFrançois Gérard, Wikimedia Commons

34. His Paternity Was In Question

Shortly after taking up with her dashing captain, Empress Elizabeth fell pregnant for just the second time in her marriage to Tsar Alexander. And yes, people noticed the timing…again. When the baby, a girl named Elizabeth, was born, people whispered once more that she was the product of the affair.

None of this made the next horrific months of the Empress’s life any more endurable.

Alexander I of Russia as child attributed to VoilleJean-Louis Voille, Wikimedia Commons

35. He Went Through Another Tragedy

In 1807, devastating news came to Elizabeth’s doorstep. Her lover Alexis Okhotnikov suffered from tuberculosis and had now passed at a young age. But that wasn’t even the worst part. Although Elizabeth refocused her attention on her young baby, the girl soon perished as well from an infant infection.

Alexander mourned alongside Elizabeth—but if he knew what people were saying, that sadness might have turned to fury.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

36. People Thought He Got A Bloody Revenge

With the royal marriage so destroyed, his subjects began to believe an evil rumor: That it was Alexander who had offed his wife’s lover. While these remain rumors, most of Elizabeth’s correspondence with Alexis has been destroyed, so we may never know the full truth.

One thing is certain, though. The two of them had almost reached rock bottom.

Alexander I of Russia by G.Dawe (1819-1822, Rybinsk museum)George Dawe, Wikimedia Commons

37. He Paraded His Mistress Around

The Congress of Vienna, starting in 1814, was meant to tie up all the loose ends left by Napoleon’s downfall. It also put Alexander and Elizabeth’s dirty laundry on full display. First, Alexander foolishly insisted on bringing his mistress Maria along with him even as his wife was present, too—a faux pas that caused a huge scandal. Here, karma got him in the end.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

38. His Relationship Was Dysfunctional

While Alexander was off gallivanting with Maria, Elizabeth happened to run into her old lover, Prince Adam Czartoryski, among the dignitaries. At this point Czartoryski confessed, Notebook-style, that he still loved her, and the Empress and the diplomat reignited their affair. Yeah, I didn’t know a diplomatic Congress could get so steamy either. It also got spooky.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

39. He Met His Own Rasputin

With Napoleon out of his hair, Alexander’s guilty conscience over his father continued to ravage him. To soothe it, he sought solace in increasingly disturbing places, becoming more interested in religious mysticism. Enter: Baroness de Krudener, a “religious adventuress” bent on converting royals to her beliefs.

Like Rasputin after her, the Baroness put the Russian Emperor under a kind of spell, and together they held supernaturally-tinged prayer circles to decide his national policies around this time. But there was a silver lining.

Baroness Julie KrüdenerUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

40. He Had A Surprise Reconciliation

Alexander’s increasing drift over to the supernatural did have one enormous and positive effect on his life: Having found religion, he finally dumped Maria Naryshkina and started paying real attention to his wife at long last. Indeed, they went through a miraculous late-in-life reconciliation during this time, with Elizabeth leaving her own extramarital affair.

Unfortunately, this happy time met a tragic end.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikimedia Commons

41. He Lost Another Child

In 1824, Alexander and his wife became closer than ever—but what united them was heartbreaking. That year, his favorite daughter with his ex-mistress Maria perished at the age of 18. Elizabeth, perhaps returning his own favors with her two daughters, mourned the love child with him. Unfortunately, Alexander was going to lose a whole lot more than that.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsWikipedia

42. He Began Losing His Mind

Alexander’s bizarre beliefs didn’t stop at the occult. By the 1820s, his dark, patricidal past seemed to well and truly catch up with him, and his mental health began circling the drain. He turned withdrawn, paranoid, and suspicious of everyone around him. After all, if he had offed his own father, why would anyone hesitate to off him?

He had further burdens to deal with, too.

Alexander I van Rusland (1777-1825), keizer van Rusland Rijksmuseum SK-C-306Rijksmuseum, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

43. His Wife Was In Grave Danger

In 1825, Alexander’s wife began to sicken rapidly, so much so that doctors ordered her to travel to the south of Russia and take advantage of the better climates. He readily agreed, and they trekked to the then-remote city of Taganrog, hoping that her illness would dissipate with the cold. Instead, they got one of history’s biggest plot twists.

Alexander I with wife by Kudrekov (1800s)Кудреков, Ефим Матвеевич, Wikimedia Commons

44. He Had A Brief Reprieve

At first, everything seemed to chug along nicely in Taganrog. The Empress was making it through, and the pair of them installed themselves in a modest house rather than a palace. Although Alexander went back and forth from the city to perform official duties, he visited his wife frequently as she convalesced. Until, that is, one of his treks turned fatal.

Alexander I. von Russland LithoJosef Lanzedelli d. Ä, Wikimedia Commons

45. He Caught A Hidden Illness

In 1825, Alexander came to Taganrog feeling a little worse for the wear. At the time, most of his attendants and family believed he was suffering from a cold. The truth was much more dangerous. His illness eventually developed into raging typhus, and he spent feverish hours clinging to life and bedridden. But nothing could stop his fate.

Alexander I of Russia. From a steel engraving by Pierre AudouinInternet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

46. His End Shocked Everyone

Alexander had brought his wife to Taganrog out of worry for her health, but in the end he was the one who paid the ultimate price. He soon perished from the disease in his long-suffering wife’s arms. It took weeks for the news to reach St Petersburg—and that distance produced heartbreaking chasm.

Alexander I of Russia's death (lithography)Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

47. His Wife Was Destroyed

Empress Elizabeth was doing better than her late husband, but not by much. Besides her mental anguish over his passing—she wrote in the aftermath, "I do not understand myself, I do not understand my destiny”—her already frail physical health plummeted too. In the end, she was too ill to make it all the way back to St Petersburg for her husband’s funeral.

When she did finally make her way to the capital, the epic tragedy of Elizabeth and Alexander became complete.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

48. She Followed Him Into The Grave

In the days after Alexander’s passing, Elizabeth wrote to her mother with a disturbing confession: “If I dared, I would like to follow the one who has been my very life”. Her sinister wish came horribly true. On her way back to St Petersburg, Elizabeth died in her bed of heart failure. If nothing else, at least she was back together with her husband.

Yet Alexander’s legacy is still complicated.

Elizabeth Alexeievna factsGetty Images

49. He Was Full Of Contradictions

Alexander was something of an enigma in his own time, with some describing him as a tyrant and others as a liberal, and still others noting his “grand qualities” while in the same breath denouncing him as “suspicious and undecided”. Years later, historians believe they know the reasons for these confounding contradictions—and his slow descent into madness.

Alexander I in Dawe's workshop in the Winter palace (1826, after Martynov, Hermitage)After Martynov, Wikimedia Commons

50. He May Have Suffered From A Severe Illness

At the sudden, premature end of his life, Alexander’s mental illness was only just rearing its ugly head and ramping up his paranoia and guilt. Who knows how bad it could have gotten? Indeed, today many historians think he may have suffered from schizophrenia, which would explain his “withdrawn, seclusive” behavior throughout his life.

Alexander I gobelen (1815)Collective, Wikimedia Commons

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