Tsar Alexander I, the towering 19th-century Russian ruler who defeated the formidable Napoleon, died on Nov. 19, 1825 at the age of 48. But as Alexis S. Troubetzkoy strongly asserts in his fascinating "Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I," the "presumed" death was not the end of Alexander.
After the young tsar died in the obscure provincial town of Taganrog, rumors immediately began to circulate that the vigorous emperor had not passed away, but had abdicated his throne in order to expiate the sin of patricide. His role in the murder of Paul I is a sketchy one, but there is evidence to suggest that he believed that his unpopular father would be peacefully exiled, not assassinated. On the other hand, Alexander Pushkin, who began a biography of Alexander, held the opposite view, charging him as an accomplice.
Whatever his role, the killing made it possible for Alexander to assume the throne and rule his unwieldy country for the next 24 years but not without guilt. Finally, burdened by his past and the pressures of monarchy, he abandoned a life of untold wealth and influence and reinvented himself as a starets, a holy man named Feodor Kuzmich, who traveled Russia for the next 30 years doing good works. This, in essence, is the substance of the Legend, referred to throughout the book with a capital "L."
Mr. Troubetskoy, himself a descendant of Russian nobility, believes the legend and has written this book with a mind to substantiate it. To do so he makes a steady case that Alexander's life was one in which abdication became not only inevitable, but was part of a divine plan. During his lifetime Alexander was called "the blessed," (when he wasn't being called "the sphinx," "the crowned Hamlet" and "the enigmatic tsar"). And if we are to believe that he became the holy man Feodor Kuzmich, it is worth noting that in 1984 Kuzmich was sainted in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Mr. Troubetzkoy offers a meticulous social and political history of Russia. Readers get an inside look at life within the Winter Palace with its "exquisite paintings, sculpture, mosaics, and priceless collection of books," an exciting round of military history with a focus on Napoleon's adventures and insights into the intellectual foment of the day. Viscount Castlereagh, Prince Metternich and Frederic La Harpe, Alexander's childhood mentor and teacher, weigh in, with Metternich winning the prize for the book's most trenchant observation, coming as it does on the occasion of Alexander's death: "If I'm not wrong the history of Russia will begin where the romance has now finished."
Of course the romance did not end, and Mr. Troubetzkoy pieces together the mystery as would a careful sleuth, looking for clues beginning with Alexander's difficult childhood, which included a perfect set of actors for a dysfunctional royal family drama: a cool and distant mother, a volatile father, and an indulgent grandmother who happened to be Catherine the Great, a woman of appetites, who took charge of Alexander's education. She had ascended the throne over the dead body of her husband Peter III, and this event like many others foretold the stakes of court intrigues and aspirations.
Alexander's relationship with his explosive father, the coup that won him the crown, his intriguing on-again off-again admiration for Napoleon, his efforts to reign in an increasingly demanding population as both reformer and tyrant get full attention here. Peppered throughout the book are recorded instances in which the tsar intimated to friends his desire to abandon his worldly burdens. At the point when Alexander finally dies/abdicates, the reader is convinced that the latter case is the more likely.
Mr. Troubetzkoy was introduced to the legend by Nicholas Arseniev, a beloved teacher, and the author allows that over the next 20 years he was obsessed by the idea of getting to the truth. In 1958, the author had several visits with Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. She was a sister of Tsar Nicholas II, and in early 1920 she managed to escape the Russian Revolution. The dignified matriarch persuaded the author that the story that fascinated him was true.
"During our third or fourth meeting, I broached the subject of Feodor Kuzmich. Here she visibly blanched and then declared rather curtly, 'In our family Feodor Kuzmich was not a subject for discussion.' … A pregnant silence followed, but then she took my hand into hers and, with a touch of a smile, said, 'We really didn't discuss it. But I am old and not long for this world; you are young and apparently have understanding of these things. You should know that we have no doubt that Feodor Kuzmich was the emperor.'"
Nevertheless, of all the believers Mr. Troubetzkoy cites, no one brings more cachet or understanding to the tantalizing episode than Leo Tolstoy. Toward the end of the book the author quotes from Tolstoy's "Posthumous Notes of the Starets Feodor Kuzmich," listing reasons why it is likely that the starets and the tsar were one and the same:
"1. Alexander's death in Taganrog came on too suddenly, and prior to that, he had been in excellent health, never suffering any illness.
"2. The death occurred in one of Russia's more remote outposts, thus making it easier to effect a disappearance.
"3. The features of the corpse in the imperial casket were so distorted as to make them virtually unrecognizable.
"4. On frequent occasions, especially toward the latter part of his life, Alexander declared his desire to shed his duties and retire quietly, out of the public eye.
"5. The autopsy report noted that the body's back was bruised, as though from a lashing an implausibility for an imperial person."
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