Hearts Through History Romance Writers

The Mysterious Death Of Tsar Alexander I

by | February 21, 2012 | 24 comments

While researching my current work in progress (which takes place in St. Petersburg in 1815), I came across some very curious information about the death of forty-eight year old Russian Emperor Alexander I. Alexander reportedly died on the morning of December 1, 1825, in the remote Crimean town of Taganrog, yet many claim he appeared eleven years later in Siberia as starets Feodor Kuzmich (A starets is a spiritual director or religious teacher in the Eastern Orthodox Church; specifically: a spiritual adviser who is not necessarily a priest, who is recognized for his piety, and who is turned to by monks or laymen for spiritual guidance. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977)). Could Kuzmich have been Alexander?

Franz Krüger: Portrait of Alexander I of Russia

Why would Alexander, absolute monarch of the world’s largest country, hero of the Napoleonic Wars, and a leader who was never unpopular among his people, fake his own death to become a recluse in Siberia?

Alexander was haunted throughout his reign by his complicity in the assassination of his father, Tsar Paul I. Many of his attempts at social reform were opposed by the Orthodox Church and the nobility, and in the years following his victory over Napoleon, the strain of his various duties became a heavy burden to bear.

In 1819, Alexander’s sister and confidant the Grand Duchess Catherine died suddenly. Twice that year he mentioned his desire to abdicate. First, he told Grand Duke Nicholas and his wife, “I have decided to free myself from my present obligations and to retire from this sort of life…I am no longer the man I was and I think it will be my duty to retire.” (The Tragic Dynasty, pp. 299-300) He also confided in his brother Constantine, “I want to abdicate; I cannot bear my burdens any longer.” (The Tragic Dynasty, p. 300)

Empress Elizabeth bore Alexander two daughters, both of whom died in infancy. In 1824, Sophia, his beloved daughter by his acknowledged mistress, Maria Naryshkin, died at the age of seventeen. Also in 1824, hundreds were killed and thousands of houses destroyed in the most serious floods St. Petersburg had ever recorded. It was reported that Alexander saw it as a sign of the wrath of God.

When doctors advised a rest cure in a temperate climate for Empress Elizabeth’s lung condition, the emperor and empress announced they were going to Taganrog on the Black Sea. Taganrog was a strange choice since it had no comfortable palace and several more salubrious locations were available in more southern areas of the Crimea. Almost immediately after their arrival, Alexander set off to tour much of the Crimea, including royal farms, monasteries, hospitals, arsenals, and army camps. While inspecting a new royal estate in the Crimea, Alexander told Prince Volkonsky, “I think that I would like to live there—as a private individual…I shall soon have done my twenty-five years of service when any soldier is free to claim his release.” (The Tragic Dynasty, p. 300). He soon returned to Taganrog harboring a cold that turned into a lingering fever and led to his death on December 1, 1825.

Portrait of Feodor Kuzmich

The emperor’s illness was chronicled by three witnesses, Prince Volkonsky, Dr. Dmitri Tarasov, and the empress, but all of their accounts differed. For unknown reasons, nearly all of the Taganrog documentation was destroyed by Alexander’s successor, Tsar Nicholas I.

Eleven years later in 1836, a man who looked as if he could not afford the fine horse he rode was arrested in Siberia, whipped by authorities and deported with a group of convicts. In 1842 the deported man emerged as a starets calling himself Feodor Kuzmich. He knew several languages, gave wise advice to his many visitors, and entertained everyone with stories about court life and personalities in St. Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great. Rumors of his imperial origins were widespread, but Kuzmich never revealed anything about his origins.

In 1852, a merchant named Khromov built Kuzmich a hut on the outskirts of Tomsk, and he lived out his days there keeping bees and gardening. He corresponded widely and received many letters. It was rumored that Kuzmich held a cache of secret documents and frequently hosted secretive visitors of great bearing in his hut. He died on February 1, 1864, revered locally as a man of God.

House of Feodor Kuzmich

The troubling questions of how Alexander might have escaped Taganrog and where he was during the eleven year interim before the emergence of Kuzmich may forever remain unanswered, but modern forensics and DNA testing could resolve the mystery surrounding Alexander’s death— assuming that the remains in Alexander’s tomb in Peter and Paul Fortress are, in fact, the emperor’s, and the remains in Kuzmich’s grave site are his as well.


Bergamini, John. The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1969.

Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. New York: Arcade, 2002.

Vernadsky, George. A History of Russia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.








  1. Nancy

    Thanks for this. It is the very first bit on Russian history I have enjoyed reading.
    Quite a mystery.

    • Ally Broadfield

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Nancy.

  2. Callie Hutton

    Wow, Ally. Very interesting. Do you know if DNA testing is being done? He wouldn’t be the only powerful leader who abdicated.

    • Ally Broadfield

      The roadblock to doing the necessary testing is cost. “Imperial Legend” was published in 2002 and Troubetzkoy states that his motive in writing the book was so it could “…serve as a catalyst for a methodical, scientific investigation of this almost two-hundred-year-old mystery.” I don’t believe the Russian government will undertake the testing unless someone steps up to cover the cost.

  3. Chrissy

    Wow. Very interesting reading. I enjoyed it very much. I, too would love to see if they could ever confirm the remains.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Confirming the remains could be difficult. It’s likely that Alexander’s tomb at Peter and Paul Fortress has been opened more than once. Though no archival evidence has been found to substantiate claims, there are accounts of the tomb having been opened three times, once on the orders of Alexander II in 1866, once in the 1880’s during the reign of Alexander III, and also by the Soviets in the 1920’s. The lack of archival evidence is not surprising since Russia was free from censorship only from 1905 to 1918. The tsars and the Soviets pretty much had free reign to suppress or destroy any information. Still, I’d love for someone to check!

  4. Kirsten

    Great post, Ally! Stories like this prove the old saying truth is stranger than fiction. I wonder if they’ll ever test the remains, or let the mystery continue?

    • Ally Broadfield

      I certainly hope someone will come forward to finance an investigation. The more I read about it, the more mysterious it gets! Though you can argue that authors might be manipulating the information to their needs, I’ve read chapters from several general histories of Russia written by noted historians who are also intrigued by the mystery.

  5. Gerri Bowen

    That was a very interesting post, Ally. I had never heard any of that before. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Glad you enjoyed it, Geri.

  6. Calisa Rhose

    I think it’s interesting that people were ‘faking’ their death even in a time when you wouldn’t think they did. Interesting article. Thanks Ally.

    • Ally Broadfield

      It was such a time of change in the world, when many old orders were being overthrown. I think the Romanovs could sense some of what was to come (I guess that’s why neither of Alexander’s brothers wanted to take the throne following his death).

  7. Angelyn

    Great post, Ally! This is my favorite period of Russian history–from Alexander I to Alexander III, the grand nephew who had much in common along with many differences. The seeds of what was to come were being sown even at this time.

    • Ally Broadfield

      So true, Angelyn. It was a fascinating time.

  8. Caroline Clemmons

    All new information to me and extremely interesting. I was terribly disappointed when DNA tests refuted Anastasia’s claims. I’d be interested in the results of any DNA tests done on this case. Thanks for sharing your research.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Caroline- I will certainly do a follow up article if they ever do the DNA testing. I, too, was quite fascinated with the story of Anastasia.

  9. Emma

    Great post! One thing I find fascinating was that when news of Alexander I’s death arrived in St. Petersburg, neither of his two brothers wanted to be Tsar. Constantine, the elder, had already relinquished his rights and the plan was for Nicholas to take the throne. Only no one told Nicholas. He didn’t make a move becasue he assumed his older brother was now Tsar. Given the problems that went with the job–like getting knocked off by your wife or kids or, as Nicholas found out, even your friends–I don’t blame either Constantine or Nicholas for being reluctant but some contemporary sources did remark on the oddity of the situation. Technically, the job went vacant for several weeks after Alexander’s death for want of a willing candidate.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Thanks for adding your knowledge to the discussion, Emma. Alexander’s funeral progression was delayed until January 10, 1826, due to the confusion over the succession to the throne. It wasn’t until March 26, 1826, that Alexander was finally laid to rest. It is interesting that no one told Nicholas that Constantine had renounced the throne, but I suspect it wouldn’t have come as a complete surprise if Alexander had lived longer. Constantine was questionable at best as a successor since he had annuled his first marriage to Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna and entered into a morganic union with Jeanne Groudzinska, a Polish commoner.

  10. Jody

    Very interesting post. I especially appreciate the book sources at the end. Having done DNA testing, one would think that if his brothers had sons and they had sons that testing could be done, and comparing that between the remains of the man in the tomb and the man who was a recluse. But maybe it isn’t a matter of testing or cost but that one of answering someting that should be revealed. His successor was his brother yes?

    • Ally Broadfield

      Jody- Yes, the youngest of his brothers, Nicholas I, succeeded him. I’m not sure what part of the mystery could still need to be kept secret today, but it makes sense that his family would have kept the evidence hidden if Alexander did fake his own death. Not just to protect him (and themselves), but because he didn’t abdicate, if he really was Feodor Kuzmich and lived until 1864, he would have legally been the legitimate sovereign. A legal argument could have been made that the reigns of Nicholas I and part of Alexander II were illegitimate, and therefore all of the laws passed between 1825 and 1864 might be null and void.

  11. Paisley Kirkpatrick

    Loved this. I have always been interested in this part of history. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ally Broadfield

      Glad you enjoyed it, Paisley.

  12. Sharla Rae

    Wow, never knew this stuff. Great blog!

    • Ally Broadfield

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Sharla Rae. Thanks for stopping by.



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