Russian Royalty: Alexander III (1881-94)

Alexander was the second son of Alexander II. He was born in St. Petersburg on February 26, 1845. Alexander III became official heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Nicholas, in 1865. He came to the throne on March 1, 1881, at the age 36 after the assassination of his father and was crowned in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin on May 15, 1883. Alexander III's reign coincided with an industrial revolution in Russia and the strengthening of capitalism. His domestic policy was particularly harsh, directed not only against revolutionaries but other liberal movements. Fearing an attempt on his life, he refused to live in the Winter Palace; instead, he lived away from St. Petersburg in Gatchina, the palace of his great-grandfather, Paul I, which was designed like a medieval fortress surrounded by ditches and watchtowers. He married the Danish Princess Dagmar (Maria Feodorovna) and had six children. Alexander was a mountain of a man and renowed throughout Russia for his strength and vigor. He was known as "The Peasants Tsar", primarily because of his plain tastes. Alexander III died on October 20, 1894, in Livadia, Crimea, and was buried in the Cathedral of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. I have no information yet on his childhood or how he was dressed as a boy, but am attempting to obtain some.



Alexander was the second son of Alexander II. His father was noted for his reforms. He abolished serfdom, though the emancipation didn't in fact bring on any significant change in the condition of the peasants. The action earned him the title of "The Liberator". As the country became more industrialized, its political system experienced even greater strain. Attempts by the lower classes to gain more freedom provoked fears of anarchy, and the government remained extremely conservative. As Russia became more industrialized, larger, and far more complicated, the inadequacies of autocratic Tsarist rule became increasingly apparent. By the 20th Century conditions were ripe for a serious convulsion. At the same time, Russia had expanded its territory and its power considerably over the 19th century. Its borders extended to Afghanistan and China, and it had acquired extensive territory on the Pacific coast. The foundation of the port cities of Vladivostok and Port Arthur there had opened up profitable avenues for commerce, and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway (constructed from 1891-1905) linked the European Russia with its new eastern territories. Alexander II in 1841 married Maria of Hessen-Darmstadt (Maria Alexandrovna). The royal couple had seven seven children. He was mortally wounded on March 1, 1881, when a student, I. Grinevitskii who belonged to the revolutionary organization "The National Will", threw a bomb. A cathedral was erected on the site of the murder. Alexander II was buried in the Cathedral of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.


Alexander II in 1841 as Tsareivitch or Crown Prince married Maria of Hessen-Darmstadt (Maria Alexandrovna). Her father was Grand Duke Louis II of the Rhine Hesse (1777- ). Her mother was Princess Wilhelmina of Baden (1788- ).


The royal couple had seven eight children. The eldest was Alexandra Alexandrovna (1842-49), but she died as a small child. Nicholas Alexandrovich was the Grand Prince Thronfolger (1843-65), but died of tuberculosis as a young man. Alexander Alexandrovich (1845- ) as a result of the death of his elder brother became Tsar Alexander III. The other children were: Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch (1847- ), Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovich (1850- ), Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna (1853- ), Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich (1857- ), and Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich (1860- ).


Alexander III was born in St. Petersburg (February 26, 1845). We have no information on his childhood at this time or how he was dressed as a boy, but am attempting to obtain some. One source suggestsv that he wore army uniforms, but we have not yhet found actual images. Hedorsnot seem to have worn sailor suits.


The Grand Duke Alexander was very poorly educated. He did receive the kind of education that would have prepared him to prepare Russiato become aodern country. He was prfoundly influenced by his tutor, Constantine Petrovich Pobedonostsev. His tutor inbued him a belief in the conservative fundamentals of autocracy, Orthodoxy and nationalism that had serves as the basis for building and ruling the huge Russian Empire. Pobedonostsev was convinced that the Tsar had to crush any opposition. He looked at liberal European ideas such as constitutions and a free press to be a threat to the state and the Tsar himself. Pobedonostsev akso taught Alexander to be virulently anti-Semitic and view Russia's large Jewish population as 'Christ Killers'. Repression of the Jews during his reign would lead to a substantial emmigration of Jews to both Europe and America. As a result, much of the American Jewish population has Russian origins. Here we are taking about the Tsarist Empire. Many of these Jewish immigrants came from the non-Russian ethnic areas of the Empire (the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine).

Brother's Death

Alexander III became official heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother, Nicholas in 1865.


Alexander came to the throne at the age 36 after the assassination of his father (March 1, 1881). He was crowned in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin (May 15, 1883).


Alexander was a mountain of a man and renowed throughout Russia for his strength and vigor. To mamy he was the very embodiment of how a Tsar should be. Alexander to put it mildly lacked social graces. To many westerners, his appearance and manners and his lack of education confirmed there negative attitudes about him. he appeared crude and not overly intelligent. Queen Victoria, who was not favorably disposed toward the Russians, is reported to have said that she thought him as "a sovereign whom she does not look upon as a gentlemen". Alexander admired the simplicity of Russian life and unlike many Russian nobels, had little taste for anything western. Partially as a result, he was called the "Peasant's Tsar".

Princess Dagmar (1847-1928)

Prince Dagmar was to become the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. She was the daughter of Christian IX. The princess grew up in frugal circumstances. She was very close to her sister Alexandra who married the future Edward VII. Both girls were beautiful, perhaps why princes from such a small country married into two of the leading European families. Dagmar "Marie" was born in 1847. She was not as beautiful as her older sister Alexandra, the future Princess of Wales, to whom she was very close. Dagmar had large eyes and a wide smile. She had a tiny girl, but slender and ellegant. She was not as beautiful as her eldest sister Alexandra, the future Princess of Wales, to whom she was very attached, but she had large eyes and a wide smile on her livelier and engaging face. She had a tiny figure, but slender and ellegant. Dagmar became engaged to the eldest son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, the Tsarevitch Nicholas, in the summer of 1864 during the war with Prussia and Austria. Nicholas was a handsome, but delicate young man. He was well-read and the two became deeply attached. Nicholas did not have a strong constitution and contracted bronchitis. He was sent to the souther France to recuperate, but his condition deterriorated. Dagmar came from Denmark to visit his fiance but Nicholas died some days later. She then found herself in the compromising position of bethroting the new Tsarevitch, Nicholas's brother. Alexander was the complete opposite of his delicate older brother. He was a bear of a man broad shoulders that towered over Dagmar. More importantly, he was poorly read and had a rigid mind. Dagmar had a great sense of her family duty. Denmark needed powerfull allies. She thus accepted engagement to Alexander, without caring about his appearence, because it was convenient for Denmark. She mairred the future Tsar Alexander III Alexandrovich in 1866 and became Tsarina. They had six children. The oldest became Tsar Nicholas II, the last Tsar who was murdered by the Bolshevicks in 1918. Dasgemar died in Copenhagen in 1928.


Princess Dagmar of Denmark (Maria Feodorovna)was originally engaged to be married to the Grand Duke Nicolai, within the family always called Nixa. Nixa should have succeeded his father, Czar Alexander II, but suffering from a fragile health he died in 1865 in France, before he married the Danish princess. It was then hastily arranged by the Danish and Russian courts, that Princess Dagmar would instead marry Nixa's younger brother, Grand Duke Alexander, who would later become Czar Alexander III of Russia--and Princess Dagmar would thus still be Czarina of Russia.

Figure 1.--Here we see the royal family in 1891. The two youngest children, Prince Michael and Ptincess Olga are in front. We note the boys wearing sailorcsuits a great deal when young. Note that even at this formal occassion Prince Michael is wearing a sailor suit.


Tsar Alexander III and Tsaeina Dagmar had six children, five of whom survived into adulthood. After the birth of Nicholas, the Imperial family grew rapidly in size. The next baby, Alexander, born in 1869, unfortunaltely died before he was 12 months old. Then George was born, in 1871, followed by Xenia, in 1875, Michael, in 1878, and finally Olga, in 1882. George and Xenia became Nicholas's playmates in childhood games. The family would be ravished by the Bolshevicks after the overthrow of the monarchy. The eldest son succeded his father as Tsar Nicholas II. Both he and his father felt that he was unprepared to be Tsar. History proved them to be correct. Alexander could not have imagined what would happen to Russia nor could he understand how responsible he was. Neither understood the modern world and how to move Russi into it. Their youngest boy Michael was Tsar for a day but renounced the crown seeing that the monarchy was untenable. He was also shot by the Bolshevicks. Only Xenia and Olga escaped Russia after the Revolution.

Children's Clothing

Tsar Alexander himself himself, unlike his wife, has little interest in clothing. He dressed simply and would reportedly wore his clothes until they were virtually threadbare. The boys wore dresses when young. We also see a sailor kilt suit. As older boys they wore sailor suits into their teen years. we do not have a lot of images of the royal family, but the ones we do have show the boys wearing sailor suits. Even for a rather formal occassion, the boys wore sailor suits. Note Prince Michael here as a teenage boy wearing a sailor outfit. (figure 1). This by the 19th century a strong European influence. The Tsarina was a Danish Princess. We note her brothers commonly wore sailor suits. This was not yet a Russian imperial tradition , but a convention introduced from Denmark by the Tsarina. Styles in Denmark were strongly influenced by Germam styles. The German princes and well as German aristocratic children also commonly wore sailor suits. Nicholas as a youngman, in contrast wore an army uniform.

Family Life

Unlike many royal marriages, the one of Dagmar and Alexander was a happy one. It was said of Alexander that the two things that he never wished to break was the peace of Europe and the Seventh Commanment. He was not only faithful to his wife, but he was devoted to domestic life, both Dagmar and the children. [Battiscombe, p. 158.] He had a wonderful way with children despite his massive appaearnce and absolutely doted upon his daughters. Family life was affected by the measures against terrorism. He did not live in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Instead the family lived in Gatchina, the palace of his great-grandfather, Paul I. Gatchina was more secure. In fact, it was built like a medieval fortress surrounded by ditches and watchtowers. While the Tsar and his family were safe there, it meant that he and the royal family were virtually totaly isolated from the Russian people. Even in this large palace, the royal family lived simply. They lived in the renovated servants area.

The Tsar's Reign

Alexander III has been described as Russia's last true autocrat. He had a very tight group of friends outside his family, which of course limited what he knew of his own country. The British Ambassador Lord Dufferein wrote to Queen Victoria, "... there is still very little known about him, probably because there is very little to know." [Battiscombe, p. 158.] The security measure taken after his father's assasination acted to futher wall Alexader off from his people. Russia was changing in the late 19th century. The industrial revolution while behind Western Europe was changing Russia as well. Alexander in part because of his father's assassination persued a policy of harsh respression, aimed not only revolutionaries, but liberal reform movements as well. Alexander maintained royal absolutism and rejected the constitution and political reforms that his father was preparing to enact. Alexander and his family were horrified at the Tsar's mutilated body. This of course simply confirmed his already reactionary attitudes. Alexander's repression stabilized Russia during his reign, but he was completely out of touch with the emerging realities of a modern industrializing Russia. This meant that his son Nicholas would have to address the problems that his father had suppressed and his father had not prepared him to understand.


Tsar Alexander III viewed the Prince Alexander of Bulgaria differently than his father had. Relations deteriorated when Prince Alexander refused to operate Bulgaria as a Russian pupet state. After Prince Alexander acquiesded in the incorportaion of a rebellious priovince of the Ottoman Empire into Bulgaria, the Tsar decided on removing him. He told British Princess Alexandra, his wife's sister, that it amused him to watch Prince Alexander struggle against the inevitable.

Domestic Policies

Alexander wasc particularly to silence any and all criticism. The regulation of the press was intensified. Major reforms were instituted in education. A reform of university education required that professors be appointed by the Ministry of Interior (1884). Russian was made the sole language of education throughut the Tsar's large multi-national empire. Many schools in Russia were run by religious organizations, but were transferred to the control of the Ministry of Education. The Government also began censoring the cermons of some priests. The secere police, the OKHRANA, was established (1881) and given the power to make arbitrary arressts. Disidents were setenced to internal exhile, often in Siberia.


One of the major initiatives of Alexander's Government was a major effort of Russification. The Tsars had expanded the Empire to include many non-Russian nationalities. The Ukraine and Poles, fellow Slavs, were the two largest. Military conscription was used as an instrument of Russificatuon, taking boys and young men from different national and religious griups and Russifying them. The Jews came in for the most vicious treatment.

Foreign Policy

Alexander III did not have the close family ties to the Kaiser Wilhelm I's family that his farther had had. He was not anti-German. His mother in fact was German. Family ties with the German Imperial family which had been so important with his farher, however, were no longer a factor. The new Tsar was increasingly concerned with what he saw as German favoratism toward the Austrians in the Balkans. [Ludwig, p. 536.] This change in additude andthe fact that Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck within a few years of become kaiser had enormous implications for the future of Russia and Europe. Chancellor Bismarck had overseen the Russo-German Reinsurance Treaty (1887). It was a critical, secret agreement between Germany and Russia to reassure the Tsar after the collapse of the Three Emperors' League. The League collapsed because of the competition between Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. The two countries under the terms of the Treaty committed to remaining neutral if the other became involved in a war. After Wilhelm II became Kaiser (1888) he became impatient with Bismarck's diplomacy and wanted Germany to persue a more aggressive foreign policy. Wilhelm dismisssed Bismarck who insisted that the maintenance of an alliance with both Austria-Hungay and Russia should be the connerstone of Germany security. The new German chancellor, Graf von Caprivi declined to renew the Reinsurance Treaty (1890). By all accounts, Alexander was preparedto renew it. Kaiser Wilhelm did not object to letting the Reinsuyrance Traty lapse. The result was not what Caprivi and Wilhelm had expected. This made possible a Franco-Russian rapprochement. They did not think an alliance between Republican Frabce abdTsarist Russia was possible. The result of thismiscakculation was the creation of the Triple Entente, an alliance system which for the first time presented a serious security challenge to Germany. This was the security arrangement that Alexander's son Nicholas would inhereit from his father.

The Jews

After the assasination of Tsar Alexander II, the Tsarist persecution of Russia's Jews was resumed with a vengences. I am not sure to what extent Tsar Alexander III was personally responsible for these persecutions, but we know that he was a vicious anti-Semite. Persecution included both legal and extra-legal measures. It is undoubtable that he supported the actions. It is unclear whether his antipathy was religious based or more political in nature. Many authors speculate that the Tsarist regime promoted the persecution of the Jews as a kind of safety valve so that public anger concerning conditions in Russia would no focus on the Tsar and his Government. The Tsarist Government promulgated a series of edicts which resticted where Jews could live and and a range of economic measures. The most important edicts were the May Laws. Jews were prohibited from living outside cities and townships. The registration of property and mortgages was stopped 'temporarily'. Jews were prohibited from buying farmland and managing many properties. Jews were barred from holding government offices. Even worse were the vicious pogroms. Mobs attacked Jewish communities, ransaking homes and shops, raping ewomen, beating and killing people. These progroms were especially common in the Ukraine. There were countless progroms of varying size and distructiveness. The worst was the Kishinov Pogrom (1881). There were many ways in which progroms were inspired. The clergy often gave hate-filled sermons. The Tsarist Government did little to prevent them and officials even instigated them. We believe these were mostly local officials such as the police, but have few details. One historian wrires, "Expulsions, deportations, arrests, and beatings became the daily lot of the Jews, not only of their lower class, but even of the middle class and the Jewish intelligentsia. The government of Alexander III waged a campaign of war against its Jewish inhabitants ... The Jews were driven and hounded, and emigration appeared to be the only escape from the terrible tyranny of the Romanovs." [Wein, p. 173.] . The result was an explossion of emmigration to Western Europe, especially Germany, and the United States.

The Tsarina

Dagmar was a positive influence on her husband. Alexander had been poorly educated. She influenced him to read important books and to promote charitable programs and patrinize the arts. The Tsar did like music. Dagmar was always at his side to help and encourage him. His manners were uncouth and she was of great assistance in helping him with the state occassions which unlike her husband, she enjoyed. Dagmar especially enjoyed the regal gowns and jewels she wore for these state occassions. She also stayed near him because she so feared that he might be assasinated like his father. She did not, however, envolve herself in politics. [Battiscombe, p. 158.]


Alexander III died on October 20, 1894, in Livadia, Crimea, and was buried in the Cathedral of the St. Peter and St. Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.


Battiscombe, Georgina. Queen Alexandra (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1969).

Ludwig, Emil. Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter (Little, Brown, and Company, 1927)

Wein, Berel. Triumph of Survival.


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Created: June 6, 1998
Last updated: 2:41 AM 2/4/2022