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The Enigmatic Tsar and His Empire

Russia under Alexander I. 1801–1825


Edited By Alexander Kaplunovsky, Jan Kusber and Benjamin Conrad

In many ways Russia under Alexander I was an epoch of exploration and revision of empire and state-building. The authors of this volume explore the Alexandrine-era Russia not from the traditional vantage point of the emperor and his inner circle but from the point of view of experts and elites. These «men on the spot» drafted «maps» of the empire and its collective subjects and constructed social, political, and economic imaginaries of the empire. All these revisions and projects did not necessarily lead to an immediate and consistent (re)organization of the political, social, and cultural structures of imperial space. The Alexandrine Russia may be interpreted much more as a «laboratory» in which different potential scenarios for modernization were designed, discussed, and tested—but also rejected and forgotten.

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Alexandrine Russia as Laboratory (Alexander Kaplunovsky / Jan Kusber)


Alexander Kaplunovsky, Jan Kusber

Alexandrine Russia as Laboratory

Much international research has been done on different aspects of the reign of Alexander I. Yet, the general character of the Alexandrine Age remains undetermined, and its main political trends are not identified. While the epoch of Catherine the Great is customarily connected to “Europeanization,” “Enlightenment,” and “Enlightened Absolutism,” the history of the nineteenth century, of course deeply simplified, usually evokes such tropes as the “Gendarme of Europe” or “Tsar-Liberator.” In contrast, the period of Alexander I’s rule is often seen as separate from this history. It was a bright and heroic time, and the monarch’s personality was ambivalent, “mysterious,” and “indecisive,” but the epoch in general lacks a clear political character. So far, historiography has only agreed to distinguish between a “liberal” first and a “conservative-mythical” second part of Alexander I’s reign, with the 1812 Napoleonic invasion serving as the point of rupture. The Patriotic War of 1812 presents its own field of study, but at the same time it is also the takeoff time of secret societies and the Decembrist movement, another grand narrative of Russian history. Sometimes one gets the impression that these major topics are somehow subjects of research apart from Alexander’s rule in general.

Existing studies focus on collective or individual biographies of the historical actors1 or on the development of institutions and specific (including reformist) policies—be they social, religious, or economic. While impressive and profound in their own right,...

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