1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Speranski, Count Mikhail Mikhailovich
SPERANSKI, COUNT MIKHAIL MIKHAILOVICH (1772–1839), Russian statesman, the son of a village priest, spent his early days at the ecclesiastical seminary in St Petersburg, where he rose to be professor of mathematics and physics. His brilliant intellectual qualities attracted the attention of the government, and he became secretary to Prince Kurakin. He soon became known as the most competent of the imperial officials. The most important phase of his career opened in 1806, when the emperor Alexander I. took him with him to the conference of Erfurt and put him into direct communication with Napoleon, who described him as “the only clear head in Russia” and at the instance of Alexander had many conversations with him on the question of Russian administrative reform. The result of these interviews was a series of projects of reform, including a constitutional system based on a series of dumas, the cantonal assembly (volost) electing the duma of the district, the dumas of the districts electing that of the province or government, and these electing the Duma of the empire. As mediating power between the autocrat and the Duma there was to be a nominated council of state. This plan, worked out by Speranski in 1809, was for the most part stillborn, only the council of the empire coming into existence in January 1810; but it none the less, to quote M. Chesle, dominated the constitutional history of Russia in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. The Duma of the empire created in 1905 bears the name suggested by Speranski, and the institution of local self-government (the zemstvos) in 1864 was one of the reforms proposed by him. Speranski's labours also bore fruit in the constitutions granted by Alexander to Finland and Poland.
From 1809 to 1812 Speranski was all-powerful in Russia, so far as any minister of a sovereign so suspicious and so unstable as Alexander could be so described. He replaced the earlier favourites, members of the “unofficial committee,” in the tsar's confidence, becoming practically sole minister, all questions being laid by him alone before the emperor and usually settled at once by the two between them. Even the once all-powerful war-minister Arakcheyev was thrust into the background. Speranski used his immense influence for no personal ends. He was an idealist; but in this very fact lay the seeds of his failure. Alexander was also an idealist, but his ideals were apt to centre in himself; his dislike and distrust of talents that overshadowed his own were disarmed for a while by the singular charm of Speranski's personality, but sooner or later he was bound to discover that he himself was regarded as but the most potent instrument for the attainment of that ideal end, a regenerated Russia, which was his minister's sole preoccupation. In 1810 and the first half of 1811 Speranski was still in high favour, and was the confidant of the emperor in that secret diplomacy which preceded the breach of Russia with Napoleon. He had, however, committed one serious mistake. An ardent freemason himself, he conceived in 1809 the idea of reorganizing the order in Russia, with the special object of using it to educate and elevate the Orthodox clergy. The emperor agreed to the first steps being taken, namely the suppression of the existing lodges; but he was naturally suspicious of secret societies, even when ostensibly admitted to their secrets, and Speranski's abortive plan only resulted in adding the clergy to the number of his enemies.
On the eve of the struggle with Napoleon, Alexander, conscious of his unpopularity, conceived the idea of making Speranski his scape-goat, and so conciliating that Old Russian sentiment which would be the strongest support of the autocratic tsar against revolutionary France. Speranski's own indiscretions gave the final impulse. He was surrounded with spies who reported, none too accurately, the minister's somewhat sharp criticisms of the emperor's acts; he had even had the supreme presumption to advise Alexander not to take the chief command in the coming campaign. A number of persons in the entourage of the emperor, including the grand-duchess Catherine, Katamzin, Rostopchin and the Swedish general Baron Armfield, intrigued to involve him in a charge of treason. Alexander did not credit the charge, but he made Speranski responsible for the unpopularity incurred by himself in consequence of the hated reforms and the still more hated French policy, and on the 17th-29th of March 1812 dismissed him from office. Reinstated in the public service in 1816, he was appointed governor-general of Siberia, for which he drew up a new scheme of government, and in 1821 entered the council of state. Under Nicholas I., he was engaged in the codification of the Russian law (published in 1830 in 45 vols.), on which he also wrote some important commentaries.
See the biography (in Russian) by M. Korff (St Petersburg, 1861). On his public life and constitutional reforms see Theodor Schiemann, Geschichte Russlands unter Kaiser Nikolaus I., Bd. i. Kaiser Alexander I. p. 75 seq. (Berlin, 1904); Pierre Chasles, Le Parlement russe p. 19 seq. (Paris, 1910), and the works of V. Vagin (St Petersburg, 1872 and Moscow, 1905). Count Nesselrode's letters to Speranski and many references are published in vol. iii. of the Lettres et papiers du comte de Nesselrode.
- Le Parlement russe (Paris, 1910), p. 21
- Schiemann, Gesch. Russlands, i. 77.
- See Schiemann, op. cit., i. 81.