Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranski

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Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranski

The Russian statesman and reformer Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speranski (1772-1839) is known for his governmental reforms, based on the doctrine of separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

Mikhail Speranski was born on Jan. 12, 1772, to a village priest and received his education in a theological seminary. He taught in an ecclesiastical institution but soon transferred to the civil service. Because of his personality, intelligence, and capacity for work, as well as the patronage of the princes Alexander and Alexis Kurakin and Count Victor Kochubey, Speranski had a rapid rise and a brilliant career. At the request of the minister of interior, Kochubey, in 1803 Speranski prepared one of his first drafts of constitutional reforms. In 1808 Czar Alexander I appointed him assistant minister of justice and in 1810 secretary of state. Speranski's influence with Alexander was very great from 1809 to the beginning of 1812. A contemporary wrote: "M. Speranski is the emperor's factotum, a kind of minister of innovations. He is not allied with anyone. His influence extends to everything."

Government Reforms

In 1808 Alexander commissioned Speranski to draft a plan of constitutional reform. Speranski recommended reforms of the government based on the doctrine of separation of powers—legislative, executive, and judicial—all of them emanating from the czar. The right to vote was to be given to property owners. However, his reforms overlooked the emancipation of the serfs and excluded the servile population from participation in government. Although he leaned toward the eventual abolition of serfdom, he nevertheless realized the obstacles facing this action.

Alexander rejected his recommendations of separation of powers, but he accepted his idea of a state council, one suffering from obvious limitations. It was an appointed body; its decisions were not binding on the emperor; and it was denied the prerogative of legislative initiative. But from the point of view of constitutional theory the creation of a state council was significant. For the first time in Russian history a clear-cut distinction was made between a law, that is, a measure examined by the state council and approved by the czar, and an executive order.

Czar Alexander approved Speranski's legislation of 1810-1811 for the reconstruction of the executive departments. Speranski was also responsible for raising the civil service standards: an appointment to positions above a specified rank was conditional on the passing of a stiff examination or the holding of a college degree.

Speranski's financial program was very unpopular because it called for the suspension of issues of paper currency, the curtailment of expenditures, increases in direct and indirect taxation, and an emergency tax on incomes derived from landed estates. It is safe to conclude that these infringements of the privileges of the bureaucratic and landowning classes, rather than any organized opposition to Speranski's constitutional views, hastened his fall from power during the second half of Alexander's reign.

In 1826, however, Speranski was appointed by Nicholas I to a committee formed to codify Russian law. Under his able leadership the committee's work was fruitful in 1833 with the publication of the complete collection of the laws of the Russian Empire, which contained 35,993 enactments. Count Speranski died in St. Petersburg on Feb. 23, 1839.

Further Reading

Marc Raeff, Michael Speransky: Statesman of Imperial Russia, 1772-1839 (1957), is an excellent biography and the only one in English. Additional material on Speranski is in Allen McConnell, Tsar Alexander I: Paternalist Reformer (1970).

Additional Sources

Raeff, Marc, Michael Speransky, statesman of imperial Russia, 1772-1839, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979. □