The Emperor and the Hermit: Tsar Alexander & Feodor Kuzmich
A popular historical mystery surrounds the fate of the Russian emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), whose death at 48 years of age has been taken by some to have been staged. Alexander is said to have disappeared from the remote Crimean outpost of Taganrog where he supposedly died only to reappear eleven years later in Siberia as Feodor Kuzmich, a reticent old hermit respected by locals as a starets for his model life of piety, simplicity, and sagacity.
Was Feodor Kuzmich actually tsar Alexander?
The proponents of the emperor-turned-hermit theory have the burden of explaining not only the mechanics but the motive. Briefly put, their arguments are psychological and moral, revolving around Alexander's frame of mind at the time, wanting to renounce worldly fortune and affairs. Ironically, the tsar 's reign was, as Bondesen puts it, "under the brightest of auspices." He was the hero of the resistance against the invasion of Russia by Napoleon (commemorated by Leo Tolstoy in his epic novel War and Peace), and although his social reforms were resisted by the Orthodox Church, Alexander was never unpopular. But his last years before 1825 deeply troubled him.
The reactionary outcome of the post-Napoleonic era keenly disappointed Alexander. He regretted his government's use of harsh repression against pre-revolutionary elements opposed to serfdom. His appointee Count Arakcheyev, called by a contemporary the "evil genius of Russia," organized harsh military colonies throughout Russia that exploited peasants, leading to more misery among the populace. Civil unrest and rumors of plots abounded.
In 1824, Alexander developed erysipelas, a severe infection on the leg. His wife, the empress Elizaveta, fell ill to a respiratory problem. And his 18-year old daughter Sophia died of tuberculosis.
Countess Edling, a friend of the empress Elizaveta, wrote of this period: "Alexander, discouraged and unhappy, found consolation only in solitude, which brought him to a higher level of consciousness, away from this world full of disappointments and miseries." There are similar observations on Alexander's mood at this time by other contemporaries. He was turning more inward, reserved, religious, and even mystical.
Then, compounding Alexander's psychological state, a great flood devastated St. Petersburg. Hundreds died and thousands were left homeless. The major centers of the proud city were a morass. Alexander set out to tour the city. A famous anecdote is told of Alexander, standing anonymously in a flood-ravaged district, people milling about hopelessly. An old man nearby cries out: "God is punishing us for our sins." "No," replies Alexander, "Not for our sins but for mine."
What may have haunted Alexander even beyond the series of catastrophes of this period was fratricide. In 1801, his father, Emperor Paul, had long exhibited erratic and tyrannical behavior, suspected of mental illness and paranoia. A group of officers decided to overthrow him and make the young Alexander his successor. They promised him that nothing untoward would happen to Paul, but when the coup leaders acted, they assassinated Paul in Alexander's presence. Alexander was undoubtedly burdened by immense guilt and remorse ever since.
Unexpectedly in this same year 1824, Alexander announced plans to visit what one contemporary called the "unfortunately situated" Taganrog. Alexander seemed not only resolved but compelled by his new desire to travel. When all was readied, he left one dusk. His carriage stopped at the Nevsky monastery, where he attended the liturgy conducted by the abbot. The abbot invited Alexander to visit a certain hermit living in solitude in the monastery. The hermit's cell was a bare room with black bunting on the walls, furnished with only an altar and icons. Alexander asked the hermit where he slept, and the hermit led him to the back wall. He parted the curtain to reveal, in the soft candlelight, an open black coffin. "Look!" said the monk. "That's my bed. And not mine only. In it we shall all lie someday, and then we shall sleep deeply." Alexander was visibly impressed by this incident.
On the way to Taganrog, Alexander showed symptoms of malaria -- after visiting a hospital of malaria patients. At Taganrog, mysterious symptoms cropped up, and Alexander suffered a persistent fever, and other signs of illness waxed and waned. He had long conversations with Elizaveta, who had reluctantly accompanied him and whose diary entries stopped abruptly. In fact, nearly all of the Taganrog documentation was destroyed by Alexander's successor's Nicholas. Sources skeptical of the Alexander Legend claim that what ensued, namely Alexander's death and autopsy, are all regular in their records, but others argue that the medical and autopsy reports are contradictory, incomplete, and unreliable, especially given the many physicians in attendance on the emperor in his last days. Indeed, there was no autopsy for 33 hours, and serious decomposition.
Emergence of Feodor Kuzmich
In 1836, a certain Feodor Kuzmich appeared in Krasnoufimsk, Siberia. Because he would not volunteer information about himself and seemed to be a vagabond despite his obvious bearing, Kuzmich was arrested, flogged, and dispatched to exile in Tomsk. He worked in a distillery in the Bognotolsk exile settlement for five years, after which he wandered for 15 years.
Kuzmich finally settled in Krasnaya Rechka, where his simplicity, piety, and demeanor soon set the populace speaking of him as a starets. He knew several languages, gave wise advice to his many visitors, and entertained everyone with stories about court life and personalities in St. Petersburg. Rumors of his imperial origins were widespread, but Kuzmich revealed nothing about his origins.
In 1852, a merchant named Khromov built Kuzmich a hut on the outskirts of Tomsk, and here Kuzmich lived out his days. Author Trobetzkoy describes the little dwelling:
His hut was a single room with a tiny vestibule leading outdoors, a sort of mud-room, in which hung a heavy winter overcoat. The cell itself measured eleven and a half by fourteen and a half feet and was sparsely furnished, containing only a rough wooden table with two or three chairs and a cot with wooden slats that served as a mattress, together with a pillow and a heavy quilt. In addition there was a small stove, a couple of benches, and a shelf. On the table lay a Bible and a prayer book, and a wall shelf contained a crucifix and display of icons with a votive lamp that burned day and night. The two small windows provided little light; in freezing winter, however, the room was warm and cozy. Visitors invariably remarked on the tidiness and cleanliness of these spartan quarters.
Here Kuzmich kept a garden and bees. His diet consisted of vegetables, bread, and water. He corresponded widely and received many letters. "Fleshing out the staret's life, "writes Trobetzkoy, "is possible only through memoirs and anecdotes of his contemporaries -- what they themselves recorded or related to others, who in turn set it down." Among the anecdotes related are of Kuzmich's cache of secret documents, of secretive visitors of great bearing coming to his hut, and of young people who were entrusted with privileged information about him and court life.
All sources agree that only the grave reveals the truth. After Kuzmich's death in 1864 the "Alexander Legend" revived and spread. Subsequent emperors showed keen interest in the story of Alexander but publicly seemed to deliberately ignore the issue, going so far as Nicholas I did to destroy all written evidence concerning Alexander's illness and death, as mentioned above. Similarly, Alexander's chief biographers publicly discounted the Legend but privately kept an open mind. Novelist Leo Tolstoy was inspired enough by the life of Kuzmich to compose a fictional diary entitled "The Posthumous Notes of the Starets Feodor Kuzmich."
The lingering questions of how Alexander escaped Taganrog (some presume a British-owned yacht) and where he was during the eleven year interim before the emergence of Kuzmich will always remain unanswered. But modern forensics and DNA evidence could resolve everything -- assuming that the remains in Alexander's tomb are, in fact, the emperor's, and the remains in Kuzmich's grave site are his as well.
In 1984, a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church elevated Feodor Kuzmich to sainthood -- not because of anything to do with Alexander, at least not officially. Concludes Bondeson: "As benefits a holy Russian starets, Saint Feodor Kuzmich will remain a man of mystery in a house of sanctity."
Troubetzkoy, Alexis S. Imperial Legend: The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. New York: Arcade, 2002; Bondeson, Jan. The Great Pretenders: The True Story Behind Famous Historical Mysteries. Chapter 3: "The Emperor and the Hermit." New York: Norton, 2004.