Alexander I, one of Russia’sgreatest emperors, beloved of his subjects for his many liberalizing works andreforms domestically, and for his astounding—and unexpected—victory over thepresumably invulnerable Napoleon Bonaparte, reigned from 1801 to late 1825. Butdespite his many glittering successes at home and abroad, his immense power andwealth, the tsar was throughout his life a troubled man. Caught up in the personaland political maelstrom between his domineering grandmother Catherine the Greatand his highly neurotic and volatile father Paul I, Alexander came to thethrone as a result of a coup mounted against his father in March 1801. Althoughnot an active participant in the plot, and reassured that the plan was todepose and exile the unpopular Paul, not to harm him, Alexander was devastatedwhen the takeover turned violent and his father was assassinated. That cloudunder which he acceded to the throne never lifted, and throughout his reign heoften confided to family and friends his desire to thrust off the burdens ofstate and retire to some quiet place to live out the rest of his life.
By 1825, his popularity waning,the health of his wife becoming more fragile by the day, he decided to removehimself and a bare-bones court to Taganrog, a remote town near the Crimea. Afew weeks after his arrival there, he suddenly fell ill and died on November19, 1825. Or did he? Ever since that day, rumors have swarmed that the youngand still-vigorous tsar—he was only forty-eight—had staged his death to expiatethe sin that refused to leave him, the sin of patricide. The legend has it thathis “reincarnation” took the form of a starets, the humble and holy men whowandered throughout nineteenth-century Russia doing good works. That starets,brilliant and uncommonly erudite, was one Feodor Kuzmich. So widespread andpersistent was the belief that Tsar Alexander and Feodor Kuzmich were one andthe same that the great Leo Tolstoy planned to write a book on the subject. Imperial L...
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