The rumors of Elvis Presley’s staged death and new identity had nothing on those of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. One must judge for oneself, however, the level of credibility to be given such a claim. In the case of the latter, the evidence is at the very least interesting; to some, convincing.
Alexander Pavlovich, first grandson of Catherine the Great, was twenty-three in 1801 when he succeeded his father, Tsar Paul, on the throne of Russia. Paul was assassinated by a circle of conspirators, a plot Alexander was only partially aware of. He knew his loopy father was to be temporarily deposed, but was not apprised of the murder. Still, his common sense likely told him Dad would never go willingly. Whatever went through his mind before the deed, throughout his life Alexander bore the burden of his father’s death as if he himself had wielded the blade. From his first days as tsar to his final months on Earth a quarter of a century later, he confided in close friends that he intended to abdicate and retire to the countryside. His shoulders were not built to bear the weight of an empire, he would say.
No one involved ever adequately explained why Alexander chose such a forbidding backwater as Taganrog for his wife’s convalescence in 1825. Her doctors insisted she repair to the more welcoming climes of the Mediterranean, to France or Italy. Taganrog was a cold and windy village of only 5,000 inhabitants on the lonely Sea of Azov, north of the Black Sea 1400 miles south of St. Petersburg. The accommodations were hardly fit for an emperor, an empress, and their retinue; but that’s where Alexander insisted on taking his ailing tsarina for her prescribed rest. He left on the three-week trip two days ahead of her. On the outskirts of the capital, he visited the Alexander Nevsky Monastery—the tsar’s patron saint. Here, according to witnesses, he spent several hours in tearful prayer. Afterward, the church metropolitan presented him to an old monk who resided in a corner of the monastery. The monk lived a spartan existence with his single bench and a coffin in which he slept. The emperor seemed intrigued by the old man and his lifestyle, and the two prayed together at the elder’s behest.
Alexander stood on the steps of his carriage, staring at the monastery spires, as he and his entourage rolled away from the city. He was probably thinking of the sad state of affairs in which his country found itself. Conspiracies to topple the government were cropping up all over. His beloved 18-year-old daughter had recently died, which devastated him no end; and shortly afterward in November 1824, the capital, St. Petersburg, suffered a massive flood that killed several hundred people and left many more destitute. As the story goes, Alexander, while touring the ruins, was heard to say that God was punishing the Russian people for his sins.
In Taganrog with his wife and staff, Alexander fell ill in early November a few weeks after his arrival. The empress, Elizaveta, kept a diary, noting her husband’s condition from day to day. The cheerfulness of her entries reflected the tsar’s improving health, and on the morning of November 11, 1825 she noted how well he seemed to be doing. Although up to that point she had been meticulous in recording the events of her daily life in Taganrog, this would be her last entry. That day, at ten in the morning, Alexander summoned her to his room, and here she and he spent six hours behind closed doors. When she finally emerged, the people around her noticed how distraught she appeared. She immediately wrote to her mother, “Where does one find peace in life? Just as you think that all is settled for the better and that you can enjoy life, there suddenly appears an unexpected trial that steals away the ability to enjoy the blessings around you…it’s so unfair.” We never learn what she was implying. Alexander died on November 19.
The port of Taganrog was useless as a harbor during the winter owing to its high winds and rough, icy water. Shipping began wrapping up in October and was usually finished sometime in November. And even during its milder months, Taganrog was no tourist destination. So why had a private yacht flying a British flag been sitting for an unknown length of time at anchor in the harbor? And why did it leave the day of Alexander’s death?
As a descendent of the Russian nobility, author Alexis S. Troubetzkoy was in a unique position to conduct the research and interviews necessary to dig up all available evidence regarding the mystery of Alexander’s death when he wrote his 2002 book Imperial Legend—The Mysterious Disappearance of Tsar Alexander I. He found evidence that the yacht belonged to the Earl of Cathcart, who had been British ambassador to St. Petersburg and a close friend of Alexander’s. To sum up Troubetzkoy’s exhaustive research, the following, while not verified as fact, serves to fill in some nagging blanks. This comes from investigations carried out by various members of the Russian aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A person of unknown identity wearing peasant’s clothes boarded the yacht in Taganrog. The yacht was forbidden to take on other passengers. The yacht sailed to Palestine, where its lone passenger disembarked. Traces were found of a traveler who spent time in Palestine—possibly several years—and then went to Kiev, where he was received by one Count Osten-Sacken, who gave him papers in the name of Feodor Kuzmich.
The reports made by the doctors and others attending the tsar’s body after his death were contradictory and imprecise in many areas, which is exceeding unusual for such an eminent personage. The autopsy was belated—thirty-two hours—and inconclusive, although the physicians were among the most competent in Europe. A number of accounts noted how the face was black and unrecognizable after the embalming, which was right after the autopsy. When the body lay in state in Taganrog for public viewing, its face was kept covered. During the months that followed before the burial in St. Petersburg, only the Tsar’s inner circle viewed the face and then only at night with guards standing by. Before the tsar died, an officer by the name of Maskov arrived with an official message. Alexander put him in a carriage that quickly wrecked, killing Maskov, who, reports say, was the same height and build as the emperor. Documentation of Maskov’s interment is sketchy, but he was reportedly buried right away in a cemetery near where he died, without ceremony or observations of protocol. Alexander’s brother, Nicholas, who replaced Alexander on the throne, took great financial care of the Maskov family from then on. Maskov’s daughter was admitted to an elite school for the nobility on Nicholas’s orders, although tsars were not known for involving themselves with the lives of regular citizens. No official reason exists for the emperor’s interest in the Maskov family.
In 1836, a tall man somewhere around age sixty, arrived in a Siberian village looking to get his horse shoed. He refused to answer questions from the blacksmith or onlookers as to his history—only that his name was Feodor Kuzmich. The police whipped him for being a vagrant, sold his horse to settle a hotel bill, and sent him in chains to a work camp. This man was no typical vagrant, however. He seemed to be highly educated and well traveled, and he proceeded to make friends and distinguish himself in the work camp. He was soon released and moved from place to place in Siberia over the next several years, all the while earning a reputation as a starets, or wise religious leader. People came to him in droves seeking his advice and counsel. Children especially took to him, and these he taught history, geography, grammar, and religious subjects. He also gave detailed accounts of life in St. Petersburg.
A group of workmen were repairing a window in Kuzmich’s cabin one day, and after making repeated requests to the workers to be quieter, the elder stated sternly that if they knew who he really was, they wouldn’t dare aggravate him so. Another time, Kuzmich was recovering from an illness in the hospital when a high-ranking man, a count and army general, paid a visit to that facility. The visitor had been a close friend and advisor to Tsar Alexander, and was well-received by the patients; that is, except for Kuzmich, who covered himself in his bed and turned his face to the wall until the man left. Such insulting behavior was uncharacteristic of the starets, and it incited considerable discussion.
Kuzmich eventually ended up outside of the city of Tomsk, where a merchant named Khromov built a cabin for him. He became part of the Khromov family and lived in their home while the cabin was under construction. The youngest daughter, Anna, recorded in her diary how one night she was reading to the family a book about Tsar Alexander I. When she read a quote from Alexander, a voice from a nearby room exclaimed, “I never said that!” The door was open to their guest’s room, and it was he who’d made the comment. They immediately found him kneeling in prayer. A story went around at the time about an incident that took place on a cold winter’s day. Kuzmich asked Khromov for some extra firewood. Khromov dispatched one of his workmen to bring the wood from town. The workman grumbled and bitched, reportedly to himself, about leaving his warm cabin and hauling wood for over two miles to Kuzmich. When the man got to Kuzmich’s cabin, Kuzmich refused the wood, stating that the workman delivered it with anger in his heart. Kuzmich maintained that the man had sworn and cursed him while loading the wood. The man fell to his knees and begged forgiveness, and Kuzmich obliged.
The Khromovs reported many visitors to the cabin over the years, some of obvious rank and importance. They overheard conversations that took place in French. Solid evidence has been uncovered that Alexander II, Tsar Alexander’s nephew and son of Tsar Nicholas I, was among those visitors. But one of the most intriguing stories involves a local girl named Alexandra, who became close to Kuzmich. She was twelve when they met, and she visited the starets often over the years. He taught her lessons in many subjects, including religion, and told her stories of distant lands and holy places. At the age of twenty, the girl told Kuzmich she had decided to visit Russia’s holy sites. Kuzmich made up an itinerary for her and handed her some letters of introduction. Alexandra later recalled telling Kuzmich she wanted to see the tsar. Kuzmich advised her to be patient and that in time she would meet more than one tsar; she would learn tsars are human like everybody else, he said.
Alexandra visited the wife of Count Osten-Sacken in Kiev, and gave her Kuzmich’s letter of introduction. The countess took her to their country home and introduced her to the count. Alexandra remained several months with the couple, during which Tsar Nicholas visited. Like the count, the tsar queried Alexandra about Kuzmich, at one point stating with a far-off look that Kuzmich was indeed a holy man. When she returned to Siberia, Alexandra immediately went to Kuzmich’s cabin. She observed with astonishment how much he looked like Emperor Alexander Pavlovich. He seemed to become angry and asked her who told her to say such a thing. She explained that she’d seen a portrait of the tsar and that’s what made her say it, and added that Kuzmich even held his hands the same. The old man didn’t respond, but left the room.
When Kuzmich died in 1864, Khromov took a cloth sachet from around the old man’s neck. Inside was a scrap of paper with a message written in code, and the letters A and P. Several experts studied it over the years, but in 1927, at virtually the same time in two different cities, two men broke the code:
Anna Vasilievna, we have discovered an incredible flaw in our son. Count Pahlen informs me of Alexander’s participation in a conspiracy. We must hide tonight, wherever it is possible.
St. Petersburg. March 11, 1801
There was a deathbed confession of a man to his daughter in 1866 relating to Alexander’s grave. He was a poor man, but he was leaving her 10,000 silver rubles. He feared that people would say he stole it, so he wanted to disclose the circumstances of its acquisition to his daughter. The story is complex, but in the event, he and some others were once sworn to secrecy and given the silver rubles as a reward for their silence. He was a guardsman stationed at the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul where Alexander was entombed. He watched as workmen lifted up the tsar’s casket and opened it. It was empty. They brought in a wooden coffin from a wagon outside and placed it in the tsar’s casket, which was then resealed. This was two years after Kuzmich died.
The stories of Kuzmich and the possibilities of his imperial identity were legion in the Tomsk area, far too many to recount here. And there are many other stories from beyond Siberia. One of Alexander’s physicians, Dr. Tarasov, a close friend and confidant who attended Alexander at Taganrog, refused to visit the emperor’s tomb during the annual memorial ceremonies until he heard about the death of Kuzmich forty years later. In his memoirs he wrote that his reasons for this involved a profound secret that he would take to his grave. Count Osten-Sacken, likewise, refused to visit his good friend Alexander’s grave. Tsar Nicholas II once visited the tomb of Feodor Kuzmich, as did other dignitaries.
Several members of the imperial family and other aristocrats who investigated the death over the years confided a belief that Kuzmich and Alexander were one in the same, or at any rate some of those individuals spoke in ambiguous terms when asked about the subject. Nicholas I had most of the documentation relating to his brother’s sojourn in Taganrog quickly destroyed—including family correspondence and diaries—along with the port’s shipping records from 1823 to 1826. Alexander, while in Taganrog, announced that a Russian soldier was required to put in twenty-five years, and he’d done that. He stated that he was ready to retire. Russian emperors, however, weren’t really allowed to retire, considering they were appointed by God, as the belief went. In 1902, orders came down from the Kremlin to erect a chapel on the site of Kuzmich’s grave, although the Bolsheviks later destroyed it for materials. Just prior to his death, Kuzmich requested that a ring and an icon be delivered to the palace in St. Petersburg; it turned out that these items had disappeared before Alexander’s death. Kuzmich, it was observed by those who were around him, changed his socks frequently. Alexander Pavlovich suffered from athlete’s foot, which required that he change his socks frequently. When the Bolsheviks ordered an inventory of the items at the imperial palace at Gatchina, a container of keepsakes belonging to the wife of Nicholas I was discovered. At the bottom was a monk’s skullcap, inside of which was a piece of paper with the inscription, “The cap of the Blessed starets.”
Until a DNA study is done, we cannot know the truth of the matter. What we know for sure is that Kuzmich, whatever his real identity, was in his middle thirties during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. We know that he received visitors of all ranks with ease, spoke Russian and French, and comported himself like a statesman. We also know that he was a deeply religious man. Alexander, too, was deeply religious, particularly during the 1812 invasion when he began to get involved with different religious sects and mysticism. Kuzmich had to be somewhere in 1812. It is indicated in “Beyond the Berezina,” that he was serving a holy purpose in Lithuania.