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In considering who would inherit the Russian throne after her, Catherine the Great hoped to bypass her unloved son Paul and make her grandson Alexander (1801-1825, b.1777) her immediate successor. It did not come about quite as she intended. But because she had such high hopes for her grandson, she took special interest in Alexander’s education. Catherine invited the Swiss tutor LaHarpe to introduce her grandson to some of the achievements of the European social and political thought, in which she herself had always had such a keen interest. 

Alexander I

The democratically-minded LaHarpe, who, strangely enough for a tutor of a future autocratic ruler, was an advocate of a republican form of government, became a major influence on Alexander’s childhood, implanting in his royal pupil a respect for the ideas of the Enlightenment. (It is worth noting that LaHarpe was the cousin of the French revolutionary leader Marat.) Raised on the milk of the Enlightenment, Alexander became the first tsar to address seriously the twin problems of serfdom and autocracy and to draw plans for a complete transformation of the Russian social and political system.

The young Emperor was supported  in these activities by a small group of earnest young aristocrats and officials. The leading part in this close circle of reform-minded men was played by Michael Speransky (1772-1839) - a man of low origin who rose to the highest reaches of the Russian government to become probably the most brilliant Russian statesman of the nineteenth century. In the course of several years Speransky had risen to the position of the tsar’s closest adviser. Alexander entrusted him with the preparation of memoranda containing a detailed analysis of Russian society and a program of far-reaching reforms. These papers, which were made public only many decades after Speransky’s death, were written with maximum frankness and fairness, for they were intended for the consideration of the Tsar alone. Speransky’s analysis, made by a man who uniquely combined an extensive practical knowledge of administration and government with personal understanding of the life of the people, gave the most authoritative and truthful picture of Russian social and political system at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Speransky told Alexander the unpalatable truth about the Russian political system, describing its chief defects, such as the complete neglect of the principle of separation of powers and the unlimited prerogatives of the supreme autocrat. Without mincing his words, he  branded such a system as despotic and saw it as a main reason why Russia’s population was deprived of civil and political rights:   


The fundamental principle of Russian government is the autocratic ruler who combines within his person all legislative and executive powers, and who disposes unconditionally of all the nation’s resources.  There are no physical limits to this principle...

When the powers of the sovereign authority are unlimited, when the forces of the State are combined within the sovereign authority to such an extent that no rights are left over for the subjects - then such a State exists in slavery and its government is despotic...


According to Speransky, a State founded on the autocratic principle, whatever superficial constitution it may have, or whatever may be asserted in its Charter of the Nobility, cannot be law-based, because its so called ‘Codes’ and ‘laws’ are nothing but the arbitrary decisions of the tsar and his government which they can revoke or changed any time they please. In such a State all  subjects and all social classes, regardless of their relationship to one another, exist in slavery to the autocratic authority which is in complete possession of the political and civil liberties of its subjects: 


I wish someone could point out to me the difference between the peasants’ subservience to their landowners and the nobility’s subservience to the Sovereign, or could show that the Sovereign’s powers over the landowners are not identical with those the landowners  wield over their peasants?

In short: instead of all the pretentious divisions of the free Russian people into the absolutely free classes of nobility, merchants, etc., I can find only two conditions existing in Russia: the Sovereign’s slaves, and the landowners’ slaves.  The first can be termed free only with regards to the second, but actually there are no truly free men in Russia, except beggars and philosophers.


The significance of Speransky’s analysis is that it clearly shows that, despite the Petrine Reform and Catherine’s ‘enlightened absolutism’, the basic, essential features of Russia’s socio-political system were still practically unchanged in the nineteenth century from what they had been three hundred years before, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-1584). The State was still omnipotent exercising unlimited control over the lives and property of all its subjects.  If anything, as a result of the Petrine Reform  and of the final enserfment of the peasantry, it had become even stronger. And, towering above everything else, was the unchallenged authority of the supreme ruler. No laws, institutions, or liberties could exist outside the autocrat’s sovereign will.

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