Two 19th century figures were separated by continents, but brought together by a common belief in liberty.
The 16th US President Abraham Lincoln and Russian Tsar Alexander II faced similar challenges and shared triumphs. From half a world away the two leaders kept in touch, expressing their passions and policies for a better future of Russia and the United States.
“It was mainly a correspondence between ministers,” says Aleksandr Petrov, a Senior fellow at the Institute of World History in Moscow. He adds that the naval ministries of both countries were trying to find a way to strengthen economic cooperation, military solutions, and to make the world a safer place.
“Aleksander II really believed in a free world…he just abolished serfdom, and two years later Lincoln made his famous speech,” says Petrov.
The Gettysburg address is probably now one of the most famous speeches in history:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth
on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and
dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing
whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so
dedicated, can long endure.”
The Civil war was a long hard battle fought to keep a nation together, but to also ensure all men were free, and could have basic rights to learn to read and write. John W. Fields remembers his thirst for knowledge as a slave in this excerpt from a letter written in 1880:
“In most of us colored folks was the great desire to [be] able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution”
Serfs in Russia were also not educated, but some, like Praskovia Kovalyova-Zhemchugova were an exception. She was a Russian serf actress and opera singer, talented and beautiful. Her master Count Nikolai Sheremetev fell in love with her, and their affair was kept secret for years. In 1798, Sheremetev emancipated his beloved serf after marrying her…It was a brave and uncommon marriage that took place 63 years before Aleksandr II would abolish serfdom.
Aleksandr’s Manifesto was one of the most important legislative acts in Russian history, just as Lincoln’s abolition of slavery would be in the United States. For some the parallels are no coincidence…Petrov says, ”Russia sent naval ships to the US to help Lincoln keep his country together. Russia stepped forward and helped the Union…not the confederate army, not France, and not Great Britain, but it was Russia which really helped Abraham Lincoln save the Union.”
Lincoln and the Tsar both vowed to liberate and did …and both were tragically assassinated. President Lincoln was shot in the head during a theater performance in 1865, and Aleksandr II was killed in 1881 when his carriage was bombed in St.Petersburg.
Today the two remain towering figures of history and are enshrined, one at the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC which reads ”The protector of the union,” and the other a statue in Moscow outside of Christ the Savior Cathedral titled ”The liberator.”